Celtics

Besides Jayson Tatum, which Celtics player is most critical to playoff success?

Besides Jayson Tatum, which Celtics player is most critical to playoff success?

The prompt for this playoff preview story essentially went something like this:

Editor: “We need you to write on the player most vital to Boston’s playoff success … “

Me (interrupting): “Jayson Tatum!”

Editor: “No, it can’t be Tatum.”

Me: “No, it’s clearly Tatum. His on/off splits are fascinating. The Celtics own a net rating of plus-10.3 in Tatum’s 2,043 minutes of court time, and that plummets to minus-1.0 in his 1,054 minutes on the bench. They’re essentially the Milwaukee Bucks with Tatum on the court and the Phoenix Suns when he’s not. Despite all of Boston’s collective talent, you need a singular superstar to carry you if you want a true shot at winning it all. The Celtics need Tatum to be that guy.”

Editor: "No, I meant you have to pick someone other than Tatum.”

Me: “Oh.” (ponders for a minute) “What about Marcus Smart?”

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Smart probably isn’t the first name that jumps to mind when you think of players who could dictate Boston’s bubble success. Even if you can't pick Tatum, you might eye starters like Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, or Gordon Hayward. Heck, there’s a case to be made for the importance of Daniel Theis, especially considering the center talent that Boston could encounter in the bubble playoffs.

But we can’t shake the notion that Smart could be particularly critical in this bubble format.

From being the team’s top ball-handling option behind Walker (and his balky knee), to his vocality in these empty gyms, to his ability to take a handful of defensive reps per game on some of the star big men that Boston will be tasked with slowing down, Smart’s fingerprints need to be all over the bubble if the Celtics are to reach their loftiest goals.

Put another way: Smart has to be a superstar in his role in order for the Celtics to thrive.

Sure, the Celtics don’t put up Tatum-like eye-popping splits with Smart on the floor but, as has been well-documented the past six seasons, stats don’t tell the story with Smart. It’s his energy, it’s his hustle, it’s his grit. It’s all the things that even advanced stats can’t quite quantify.

Even Smart's Celtics teammates believe his presence can raise Boston’s bubble ceiling.

“We've got a cheat code: Marcus Smart,” said Celtics big man Enes Kanter. "Fans out there, no fans out there, this guy is like unbelievable. I knew he was a good player before I joined the Celtics, right? I didn’t know he was this good of a teammate.

We can rely on him just to fire his team. I’ve played with so many different players, there’s only one more player like that in the league and that's Russell Westbrook. And now Marcus Smart. I have not see another player like those two.

Inside the unprecedented bubble environment, the Celtics desperately need someone like Smart. When Boston fizzled against Oklahoma City in its scrimmage opener, Celtics coach Brad Stevens repeatedly noted how Chris Paul’s voice dominated the game and implored his players to get louder. Smart doesn’t need an excuse to crank his volume and, even on the sideline, you can hear him barking out calls and encouragement from the Boston bench.

Smart may operate out of a reserve role but he will play starter-like minutes. He’s developed good pick-and-roll continuity with fellow reserve Kanter and saves some of his flashiest feeds for when the Turkish big man is rolling at the rim.

Celtics Talk Podcast: Do C's have bigger concerns than Giannis? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

The Celtics need Smart to be a consistent 3-point threat. Over the last two playoffs, albeit while he was coming back from injuries, Smart shot just 20.3 percent beyond the arc, including just one make in 11 tries last season. He’s going to get open looks, especially if Stevens trots out the team’s “five best” lineup where Smart tags in for Theis and runs with the fellow starters.

But Smart’s greatest impact has to be on the defensive end. He has to be Boston’s defensive coordinator and the one that ensures the team doesn’t throttle down the intensity. The Celtics owned the NBA’s fourth best defensive rating before the season paused and boast the defensive versatility to really fluster opponents. Boston didn’t look that sharp on the defensive end in early scrimmages and must ratchet up that intensity to a Smart-like level when the games matter.

Stevens won’t hesitate to deploy Smart if the Celtics need help slowing down a big man. Smart logged nearly 8 minutes of matchup time against soon-to-be two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo this season. The Greek Freak had as many turnovers (4) as field goals (4) in that span but also drew three shooting fouls. Even if it’s not a traditional 1-on-1 matchup, the Celtics can have Smart rush over to help double someone like Joel Embiid if they need to compensate for the size that Theis and the team’s undersized bigs might give up.

Smart is the simply the team's Swiss Army Knife. And it’s likely he’ll be asked to use each of his attachments inside the bubble. He doesn’t need to put up a loud stat line in Orlando but he needs to be loud, he has to raise Boston’s energy level, and he has to leave his imprint.

"Marcus, man, he gets himself fired up, he gets everybody else fired up around him, the coaching staff, the players, even like the ball boy gets fired up, the waterboy gets fired up,” said Kanter. "Everybody gets fired up when he’s around.”

By box score alone, Smart won’t be the most vital. But he will be extremely important to whatever the Celtics accomplish in Orlando.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Bucks, which begins Friday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.

Enes Kanter Show: Celtics center praises Brad Stevens for explanation of less playing time

Enes Kanter Show: Celtics center praises Brad Stevens for explanation of less playing time

The Boston Celtics committed to Brad Stevens with a contract extension earlier this week, and it isn't difficult to see why.

The C's head coach has received rave reviews from players and staff who have had the opportunity to work alongside him in Boston over the last seven years. Not only has Stevens done a phenomenal job leading the team on the court, but possibly even more importantly, he's been able to connect with his players off of it.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-76ers, which begins Monday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

In a brand new episode of the Enes Kanter Show, the Celtics center explains to Chris Forsberg what makes Stevens such a great head coach.

Enes Kanter Show: Celtics’ dodgeball games and getting ready to joust with Joel Embiid and the Sixers | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

"What makes him so special is what he does off the court," Kanter said about Stevens. "He's the type of coach that tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. Always keeps it 100 percent real with you. More than a coach, he's just a friend, man. You can literally go to talk to him about anything."

Kanter, who has seen his minutes reduced lately in the Orlando bubble, praised Stevens for how he communicated with him about his decrease in playing time.

"There were some games where I was not playing a lot," said Kanter. "I went to his room and we talked, and he was like, 'Hey, listen, it's your ninth year now and there's so many young guys that are looking up to you. Your best strength is not the offensive rebound. Your best strength is not the post-ups, not the finishes and everything. Your best strength is just being a good teammate. Just trying to give positive energy. And that's what we need from you in the games where you don't play.'

"I mean, look, not every coach is comfortable talking to their players. The Celtics organization definitely feels very special to have him on our side ... It's a blessing to have a person like him on our team."

Also discussed on the show: The story behind the Celtics' dodgeball game in the bubble, Kanter's frustration at Jayson Tatum "being good at everything," and how the Celtics can slow down Joel Embiid.

You can listen and subscribe to The Enes Kanter Show here, or watch on YouTube.

Celtics-76ers preview: What will Philly miss most from Ben Simmons?

Celtics-76ers preview: What will Philly miss most from Ben Simmons?

As we saw throughout most of Philadelphia’s seeding games, the 76ers losing Ben Simmons (left knee surgery) for the season was a huge blow. 

It’s one of the main reasons why the Boston Celtics are overwhelming favorites over their Eastern Conference rival in the teams' first-round playoff series, which begins on Monday.

So where will Simmons' absence be felt the most?

Defense

For all the impressive things Simmons does with the basketball, the Sixers will miss him most on the defensive side.

The 6-foot-10 Simmons boasts length, size and lateral quickness that causes problems for opponents offensively because of his pick-and-roll defensive potential that’s on display most nights.

Against the Celtics, Simmons spends most of his time on the floor guarding Boston’s top scorer, Jayson Tatum. 

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-76ers, which begins Monday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

In the four games the two teams played this season, three of which were won by Philly, Simmons limited Tatum’s impact each time. 

According to NBA.com/stats, Tatum shot 31.3 percent (5-for-16) in games in which he was guarded by Simmons this season. 

So, if Tatum puts up big-time numbers in this series, no one should be surprised considering the Sixers player who has consistently done the best job at defending him won’t be on the floor.

Offensive mismatches

A point guard trapped in a big man's body, Simmons has speed and strength that creates matchup problems on the perimeter as well as on the post.

The 24-year-old averaged 16.4 points along with 7.8 rebounds and 8.0 assists this season while shooting a team-best 58 percent from the field.

Celtics Talk Podcast: The Al Horford conundrum and why Sixers won’t last long vs. Celtics | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Simmons’ shooting range has been a topic of discussion for as long as he has been in the NBA. And while it creates a different kind of challenge for the Sixers when it comes to running their offense, the third-year pro has shown himself to be talented enough to still be a high-impact, difference-maker for Philly.

Playmaking

Soon after the Sixers arrived in the bubble, head coach Brett Brown talked about how the team was planning to play Simmons more at power forward to better utilize his versatility and create better spacing for the team’s perimeter shooters.

Like most of what the Sixers have tried to do this season, the few times we saw Simmons in that role it didn’t work. But his absence creates an even bigger hole when it comes to playmaking.

Shake Milton has moved into the starting lineup after putting together a string of impressive performances prior to the league being suspended in March.

However, his impact was greatest as a scorer, which is different from what he is being charged with now. Milton is averaging 12.5 points as a starter this season to go with 2.9 rebounds and 3.9 assists. 

No one is expecting him to put up Simmons-like numbers, but the more you watch Milton play and try to run Philly's offense, the clearer it becomes just how much Simmons’ presence is missed.