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.
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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.