LOS ANGELES – I have never been quiet about letting anyone within earshot know that I am a huge Marcus Smart fan.
And after spending more games last year watching Gordon Hayward and the Utah Jazz play, I was convinced then that acquiring him alone would make the Celtics legit title contenders.
One of the worst things about him getting hurt so early in the season, is that fans on the East coast won’t get to see how good this dude is.
Kyrie Irving tried to tell y’all the day him and Gordon were introduced as Celtics in the fall.
“He’s a bad dude!” Irving said a few times that day in describing Hayward.
But as important as Hayward is going to be for this franchise moving forward, they can’t be consumed with that right now.
Boston has problems, evident by the Celtics losing four of their last five games with three of those losses being in games that they trailed by 20-plus points.
A Hayward return would obviously help the Celtics, but the timeline for that, even as remote a possibility as it is to actually happen, won’t come in time to get their season back on track.
That’s why for this team, for this season, the return of Marcus Smart is their best shot at getting back to where they were just a couple months ago – at or near the top of the NBA mountaintop along with Golden State.
Here are five more reasons why a Smart return will help.
WANTED: BETTER DEFENSE
The Celtics aren’t defending anywhere close to the level that we saw earlier this season, and that is disturbing. Yes, they had their share of struggles at times even when Smart was healthy. But the sample of work without him in the lineup really illustrates his value to this team from a defensive standpoint. Before his recent hand injury, the Celtics were tops in the NBA in defensive rating (99.7) and opponent field goal percentage (.432) while second only to San Antonio in points allowed (97.6). But since Smart’s injury, Boston’s defensive rating has dropped to ninth in the league (105.2), while their opponent field goal shooting (.442) and points allowed per game (104.9) have also dipped to where they are barely in the top 10.
FILLING THE VOID
When Gordon Hayward went down, you knew the Celtics’ wing players – Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and to a lesser degree, Semi Ojeleye – would all be counted on to contribute more. And to their credit, each has stepped their game up in Hayward’s absence. But replicating the contributions made by Smart? That’s much easier said than done and on most nights for Boston, it’s not happening. That doesn’t mean the Celtics don’t have players who can defend on the perimeter. But there’s defending and then there’s Marcus Smart defense which to be frank, is better. We see it when he’s on the floor, and when he’s absent it becomes even more glaringly obvious.
The biggest bonus with Smart’s return, is that you know he’s coming back soon. Him punching a picture frame in Los Angeles a month ago and the 20 stitches that followed, could have been so much worst than him missing a month of play. Celtics head coach Brad Stevens anticipates he’ll have the 6-foot-4 guard available for practice on Wednesday with the intent on him being able to play at Detroit that week.
As for Hayward, he confirmed with me on Paul Pierce night at the TD Garden that the plan was for him to start traveling with the team sometime in March. That’s another positive step in his recovery. But until he gets on the floor and actually starts running up and down with his teammates, doing the little things that all players do in practice, his return remains nothing more than a flicker of hope for Boston. And because of that, the Celtics would be foolish to pin their hopes of a strong run towards him coming back to the lineup. It’s good to have that kind of positive thinking, something the Celtics are very conscious of wanting to ensure they do in regards to Hayward’s recovery which they continue to maintain will result in him returning to the team next season.
IMPORTANCE OF CHEMISTRY
When you talk about playing together, no matter how the talents may appear to mesh at first, it takes time for players to really get a feel for how to play effectively with one another, for an extended period of time.
That’s why as seamless as a Hayward return may seem, there’s still an element of mystery as to how well he can work with Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and his other teammates. And it’s not a situation where Hayward will look to be a shot-chucker or go in the opposite direction and defer too much. It’s about knowing where to be and what to do to best help the team be successful. Unfortunately, Hayward’s injury has put that process on hold. Smart’s role with the team is more clearly defined.
He is the key on-the-ball defender for them, a guy whose defensive tenacity can be at times the catalyst needed in order to start playing better basketball. And while his shot selection does at times leave fans scratching their head, Smart does make his share of big, late-game shots.
IMPACT ON OTHERS
There is no question the Celtics are a better team when they have a healthy Gordon Hayward around. But the one silver lining we’ve seen all season in his absence, is the growth of Boston’s wing players who were getting opportunities to play that otherwise would not have come about had Hayward not suffered a dislocated left ankle injury. Jayson Tatum would have been the team’s fourth or fifth option offensively. Instead, he blossomed into one of the best scorers in this rookie class. Jaylen Brown has always exhibited skills you want in a developing leader. But the injury to Hayward has led to him taking more big shots that in all likelihood he would not have taken if Hayward were still playing.
Meanwhile, Smart’s return will take some of the pressure off of Boston’s guards and wing players who have struggled at times defensively in his absence.
The bottom line is that both Hayward and Smart can help Boston eventually compete for an NBA title. But for now, they first must get back to their winning ways and that has to happen sooner rather than later.
And that’s why, as talented a player as Hayward is and means to this Celtics team, at this point in their growth and development, they need Smart back on the floor to do what he does best – impact the game in a positive way.