It's getting hard to defend lack of Celtics' Marcus Smart in DPoY conversation

It's getting hard to defend lack of Celtics' Marcus Smart in DPoY conversation

Finalists for the NBA’s six performance awards were unveiled Saturday and there were no Celtics on the list.

That’s not all that surprising, but the one category that will stick in the craw of Celtics fans — and Celtics players, too, evidently — is Marcus Smart not being among the finalists for Defensive Player of the Year.

Hammering home the notion that it’s become a big man-only award, the trio that did make the DPoY cut were the Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo, Lakers’ Anthony Davis, and Jazz’s Rudy Gobert. Make no mistake, all three deserve their spots and it’s much easier to quantify their defensive impact with publicly available data. Alas, the eyeball test tends to suggest that few players make the sort of impact that Smart does on the defensive end.

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And the quarter century wait for a guard to win the award will continue, even if Smart keeps making a heck of a case for himself. It’s time the rest of the NBA take note of the way Smart impacts Boston’s defense on a nightly basis.

A global panel of sportswriters and broadcasters voted for the league awards before teams started play inside the bubble but all you need to do is rewind to Friday night for an example of what makes Smart so special on the defensive end.

It's easy to focus on the end of this sequence — with Smart lunging on the floor for a loose ball and still having the presence of mind to push the ball forward to get teammate Brad Wanamaker a transition layup. But rewind the tape to the start of the possession and watch Smart spin his way through a Serge Ibaka screen to stymie a Fred VanVleet drive. In fact, Smart ends up shuffling another 30 feet to prevent any shot attempts then, once VanVleet has given up the ball, Smart is still in position to pounce when the rock popped free.

In Friday’s game, Smart split most of his night on VanVleet, Norman Powell, and Kyle Lowry. But he also took turns on all of Toronto’s bigs, logging nearly a handful of partial possessions against Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol. None of them registered a shot attempt against Smart, telling in a situation where you might think a size mismatch would leave an opponent forcing a shot.

This is not unique for Smart. He spent nearly as much time on Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk as he did on Goran Dragic, Kendrick Nunn, and Duncan Robinson earlier in the week against Miami. Smart logged his most possession time against Antetokounmpo in Boston’s seeding game opener (and Khris Middleton was second most).

This, in a nutshell, is Smart’s case for why he deserves more consideration for Defensive Player of the Year. He’s dubbed himself a stretch-6 and often notes that he offers more defensive flexibility than the bigs who simply clog up the path to the basket. Smart wonders how those bigs would fare if they routinely picked up quicker point guards, the way he often takes on the challenge of defending 5s that have as much as a foot size advantage on him.

The Celtics have the fourth best defense in the NBA, in part, because of Smart. Even without the sort of backline defensive anchor that dominates the DPOY conversation, Boston has thrived because of the defensive tone that Smart sets.

This didn’t always feel like Smart’s best defensive season overall but it was one that really hammered home his versatility, particularly with how often he defended big men this year. He should be rewarded for that, and maybe he will be if he lands another spot on the All-Defense first team.

Until then, Smart will simply keep using these sort of snubs as motivation to show he’s among the most impactful defenders in the league. All while guarding the big men that keep taking home this trophy.

Celtics have entered the elite contender group chat

Celtics have entered the elite contender group chat

Well, hello there, Boston Celtics.

After seven inconsistent performances down in Orlando, the Celtics asserted themselves — and loudly, too — as a legitimate title contender with a dominant 122-100 thumping of the previously bubble unbeaten Toronto Raptors.

There is always a danger in overreacting to a single game but this was no fluke. The Celtics simply displayed their full potential and on both ends of the court.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Magic, which begins Sunday at 4 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 5 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

The ball whizzed around the floor with an extra focus on ball movement leading to 16 3-point makes. The Celtics shuffled their feet and guarded with purpose, limiting the Raptors to 57 points through three quarters while Boston’s lead ballooned as high as 40.

"This game will mean nothing if we (see the Raptors again)," Stevens cautioned after his team’s win. We’d counter that it probably would not have mattered if the Raptors were clicking on most of their cylinders because of the way the Celtics played for much of the night.

The Celtics put seven players in double figures and had an offensive rating north of 120 early in the fourth quarter before Stevens fetched the starters. That’s an absurd number when you consider the Raptors had limited teams to 96.1 points per 100 possessions through their first three seeding games.

While quality teams like the Lakers and Heat struggled to generate offense against Toronto, the Celtics made every extra pass, sprayed the ball around to open shooters, and knocked down open looks.

A Raptors team that has routinely challenged teams to shoot corner 3-pointers watched Boston scorch from that spot. Boston made a staggering 10 of 15 attempts from the corners, with everyone including big man Daniel Theis having success there.

"I think the biggest thing is that, when the ball doesn’t stick, we’re pretty good,” said Stevens. "We really had a large emphasis on that. Not only tonight but the other night as well. We've got to keep sharing it and keep making plays for others. Our players are really good, they’re going to draw a lot of help, when they do, it’s just a matter of making the right read and doing that over and over.”

Or as Jayson Tatum underscored it: "Guys got some easy, open looks and I think that opened the game up for us.”

As good as Boston’s offense was, the defense was even better. And considering the poor showing on that side of the ball to this point of bubble play, that was maybe even more encouraging than the offense.

Yes, the Raptors missed some shots but Boston didn’t give them much easy. Toronto mustered only 12 first-quarter points as the Celtics played with ratcheted-up defensive intensity throughout the first half.

Boston needs to bottle up this defense moving forward.

"I saw something, we were like the last team or one of the last teams in defense in the bubble, and that’s just kind of unacceptable for us with the elite defenders we have on this team and just collectively, our identity, who we want to be,” said Tatum.

"We have to take more pride in that. I think today was a good step in the right direction but we’ve got to continue to get back to who we are and guard how we normally do.”

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Stevens tightened up his rotation but went back to second-year center Robert Williams as his first big off the bench. He was rewarded with 11 minutes, 27 seconds of solid play, with Williams putting up 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting with four rebounds. He was much more disciplined in his coverages and again offered hope that he can be a bit of an X-factor for the Celtics if needed in certain matchups.

Brad Wanamaker added 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting off the Boston bench as the team didn’t throttle down with reserves on the court. Heck, Marcus Smart was 1-of-8 shooting and STILL finished plus-19 in 24 minutes of action.

The Raptors had been the darling of NBA pundits in recent days. Their early bubble domination had prognosticators suggesting they might be more dangerous than Milwaukee, which isn’t an outrageous suggestion considering Toronto’s talent and the experience gained last season.

The Celtics sent notice to the league that they plan to be in that hunt for the East crown. Despite what Stevens suggested, shellacking the Raptors like that — and finishing 3-1 in the season series — has to help a little bit should these teams see each other again in the East semifinals.

The Celtics finally showed the type of team they can be. Now they must bottle it up and take it into the postseason. The Boston team we’d seen in early seeding games wasn’t consistent enough, or defensively stout enough, to hang around very long.

The team we saw Friday night absolutely can get comfy inside that bubble.

Why Celtics should be wary of Raptors as potential NBA playoff opponent

Why Celtics should be wary of Raptors as potential NBA playoff opponent

Some thoughts as the Boston Celtics make the turn for the back nine of their eight seeding games, starting with an Eastern Conference showdown against the Toronto Raptors on Friday night:

RESPECT THE RAPTORS

There’s a case to be made that the Toronto Raptors are the scariest team in the Eastern Conference. 

Sure, this Kawhi-less version lacks the top-level superstar who typically helms most championship rosters but that has been offset by the overall collection of talent, strong coaching, experience gained last season, and — maybe most importantly — the disrespect the team has endured during its title defense.

Inside the bubble, where defense has been in short supply, the Raptors have limited opponents to 96.1 points per 100 possessions. That’s the best mark among bubble squads, one of only two teams below the century mark (Oklahoma City, 97.4), and one of only three south of 106. The bubble average is closer to 112.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Raptors, which begins Friday at 8 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

For sake of comparison, the Celtics and their inconsistent defense has allowed a staggering 114.9 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 17th out of the 22 teams in the bubble.

It’s that defense that makes the Raptors a particularly imposing foe. Toronto has absolutely smothered teams from the mid-range and beyond inside the bubble. Maybe intimidated by the length and defensive talent near the rim — with Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, and Pascal Siakam patrolling there — opponents have settled for low-percentage, long-distance attempts. All while guys like Kyle Lowry make things uncomfortable on the perimeter.

The Celtics enter Friday’s game with the second-best offense in the bubble (121.9 offensive rating), but those numbers were juiced after Wednesday’s fireworks versus the lethargic Nets. Nothing will come nearly as easy against the Raptors and we’ll get a much better sense of whether Boston can put up points against an elite defense.

Are the Raptors scarier than the Bucks? You always want to have the best player in a series and Giannis Antetokounmpo certainly checks that box. But Milwaukee’s depth will be tested in the playoffs and needs its complementary pieces not to shrink on the big stage. The Raptors can feel confident that their championship-tested core won’t do that but they’ll need guys like Siakam to be great in the absence of a certified star.

IS THIS A SECOND-ROUND PREVIEW?

The Celtics enter Friday's action with a 98.6 percent chance of landing the No. 3 seed, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index projections. And while much of the focus has been on who the team might draw in Round 1 (the Sixers were at 58 percent to be that opponent, with Indiana at 37.8 percent), those looking ahead will wonder if we’ll get our first-ever Celtics-Raptors playoff series.

There was a lot of buzz about whether Boston could surge for that No. 2 seed before the seeding games started. That fizzled quickly, in part because of the way the Raptors came flying out of the gate. The big question about a potential Boston-Toronto matchup is whether a neutral floor could negate the obvious advantage that the Raptors would have had as the higher seed. The Celtics have struggled mightily north of the border, but might things be a bit more palatable playing in the Orlando sunshine?

That’s not to say the No. 2 seed won’t aid the Raptors. Toronto is trending towards a first-round series with the Nets who, as Boston found out on Wednesday night, don’t play with any sort of consistency. Even with a recent upset of the Bucks — who rested their All-Stars in the second half of that game — it’s hard to see the Nets (or, potentially, even the Magic) pushing the Raptors. Meanwhile, Boston might have to scrap a bit with a team like Philadelphia or Indiana. 

As Celtics fans mull which first-round opponent they’d rather see, injuries will probably dictate their desires. Even as Philadelphia has fought itself throughout the 2019-20 season, the 76ers were always a daunting foe because of their overall talent. Their size and length, in particular, has bothered Boston. But Ben Simmons injured his knee Thursday and his return timeline is unclear. If he is at all hindered in the postseason, the 76ers become a bit less imposing.

The Pacers have their own injury woes, with Domantas Sabonis departing the bubble. And, yes, the Celtics swept these Pacers last year. But Indiana has a healthy Victor Oladipo now and TJ Warren has been a flamethrower inside the bubble.

Regardless of how the seeding shakes out, the Celtics need to be playing better basketball than they have to ensure a lengthy run. The defense, in particular, needs to ratchet up to pre-quarantine levels for this team to have a chance.

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ROMEO, OH ROMEO, THERE ART THOU ROMEO

Even though we've only seen rookie Romeo Langford in small doses this season, Celtics coach Brad Stevens suggested early in the bubble that the lottery pick could be in the mix for minutes. And Langford showed why with his play as the first guy off the bench on Wednesday night.

Shortly after Langford checked in, he prevented a couple of Caris LeVert drives before LeVert fumbled the ball away on the baseline. A little while later, a driving Langford flipped a pass in the paint to Robert Williams for a dunk.

Langford has no shortage of offensive potential, but defense and making the right play are key for him right now in earning playing time. His minutes might be inconsistent because of Boston’s abundance of wing talent, but on nights like Wednesday when Jayson Tatum found himself in foul trouble, there will be opportunities for Langford to log time. Pair him with starters and Langford doesn’t have to try to do too much, just focus on defense.

Even that rare extended glimpse on Wednesday night is an encouraging sign of how Langford can aid the team. As he gets more time, even if that’s next season, his natural offensive abilities should emerge. But right now, he just needs to focus on playing hard defensively and anything else is a bonus.

Still, it’s clear that Langford has shimmied his way up the depth chart and could be one of the few rookies that Stevens is willing to trust in the playoffs.