Celtics

Celtics Exit Interviews: Marcus Smart was everything the 2018-19 Celtics weren't

Celtics Exit Interviews: Marcus Smart was everything the 2018-19 Celtics weren't

Allow Aron Baynes to explain why Marcus Smart is such a pest on the defensive end of the floor.

"He makes people uncomfortable,” said Baynes. "At the end of the day, [defenders are] trying to do what you can to make every shot tough but he wears on people. And it’s not just in that moment that he’s on the ball. It might be at the end of the game, they come down, they don’t have quite as much legs as they had at the beginning of the game. He’s worn on them the entire time. The cumulative effect of Marcus’ pressure over 48 minutes, it’s going to deteriorate anyone's offense.

“It’s great being able to have a guy like that on your team.”

Late this season, Smart had suggested that Baynes was as important to Boston’s defense as any player on the roster. This drew an audible grunt from Baynes — one of those booming All-of-Australia scoffs that left the big man ranting about why Smart is the team’s defensive conscience and why he deserved a spot on the All-Defense team.

Smart earned the long-overdue honor Wednesday when the NBA announced he was the top vote-getting guard, earning a spot on the All-Defense first team. Smart finished behind only Rudy Gobert, Paul George, and Giannis Antetokounmpo in media voting while earning 63 first-team and 19 second-team votes. 

This might not have even been the best defensive season of Smart’s career, but the reputation he’s built as one of the league’s top defensive bulldogs finally reached voters. Smart was on full display after elevating to a starting role in November and he spent the rest of the season playing alongside Kyrie Irving and hounding the opposing team’s best offensive weapon.

By March, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was publicly stumping for Smart.

"I'm sure if you took a poll of players around the league — even though they might be annoyed by him sometimes — they would all say that he is [one of the top defenders],” said Stevens. "Because he's into people, he's physical, he's tough, he's got a motor, he's got great hands. He should be on that team.”

It’s somewhat ironic that, in maybe his biggest season of offensive growth, Smart is finally being lauded for his defensive abilities.

Still, in a season in which little made sense about these Celtics, Smart was one of the few players to consistently bring a passion and desire that Boston fans so dearly yearned to see.

Smart’s shooting splits this season — 42.2 percent overall, 36.4% beyond the 3-point arc — weren’t just career highs but a jarring leap over his career numbers (36 FG%, 29.3 3PT%). On a team brimming with offensive potential, Smart sacrificed his own offensive chances and embraced being a creator, even as his teammates failed to show the same growth he did. 

Smart took great pride in emerging as a two-way threat, dispelling a reputation as a player who could only impact the game on the defensive end. Smart was still a defensive menace and his steal percentage (3.1) was the best in the NBA (he was third overall in total swipes). 

Smart ranked eighth among all point guards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus and that felt criminally low (though he lingered in the same neighborhood as fellow All-Defense guards Patrick Beverly and Jrue Holiday).

Smart played a career-high 80 games only to suffer an oblique injury in the penultimate game of the regular season and missed seven of Boston’s nine playoff tilts. His return wasn’t enough to get the team on track as the Bucks raced away in the Eastern Conference semis.

Alas, you’d be nitpicking to point out ways Smart could have been better this season. He embodied everything that Celtics fans wanted from the rest of the roster — a player that yearned only to win and made the sacrifices necessary in hopes of bringing out the best in his teammates.

It’s why, after Wednesday’s All-Defense announcement, Smart took to Twitter to express appreciation for the honor but also noted, “I want a banner though,” and added, “Offseason is a myth. Let’s get it.”

Stevens isn’t big on captains — believing that players throughout the roster should feel empowered — but, man, Smart continues to make a compelling case for the honor with the way he carries himself on and off the court. Even in simply going to bat for Irving after the season, Smart continually showed the markings of a true leader.

Mind you, all this came a season after he inked a four-year, $52 million extension. While most players throttle down after getting their first big deal, Smart ramped up. And he was playing in the emotional aftermath of losing his mother to cancer last summer.

Smart might just be moving towards untouchable status because of what he brings to the Celtics. That’s particularly notable as we enter a summer in which Boston might need to use Smart’s contract in order to make money match in the pursuit of Anthony Davis.

That’s a bullet the Celtics almost certainly don’t want to bite and will explore all other avenues to avoid such an occurrence on the chance that a Davis deal could become a reality. It won’t be easy, but Smart is worth the headaches of exploring the three-team, sign-and-trade options or other front-office witchcraft that might be necessary to avoid putting him in a package.

But that sorta underscores the Marcus Smart experience. Here’s a player that’s been routinely criticized throughout his career and Celtics fans might legitimately riot if he was moved for one of the best players on the planet.

Smart’s intangibles are just that valuable. And, if the All-Defense honor is any indication, the rest of the league might just be catching on to just how important Smart is here.

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Larry Nance complements Celtics defense after Cavs' blowout loss

Larry Nance complements Celtics defense after Cavs' blowout loss

The Celtics absolutely pulverized the Cavaliers Sunday at TD Garden, beating their former Eastern Conference rival by 46 points to improve to 3-0 in the preseason. 

Boston is going into this season looking for a fresh start after a turbulent 2018-19 season that ended in a second-round playoff exit and free-agent departures from Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris.

The preseason has been promising for this new version of the Celtics, and the main reason they've had two blowout wins over the last three games has been their defense. Boston currently holds the league's best defensive rating during the preseason (81.4), and while yes, it's just the preseason, players like Larry Nance Jr. have taken notice of how difficult the Celtics have made it for opposing offenses. 

“You know, they’re a pretty big team," Nance said after Sunday's game. "You know, obviously Brown, Tatum, Hayward on the wings is not easy. This is historically a really good defensive team, so I assume they’re going to be that this year.”

Without Al Horford and Aron Baynes, the defense was Boston's chief concern heading into this year. Their only way around their unproven front line was, as Brad Stevens put it earlier this week, was to put more pressure on the ball.

Through their first three games, they've done exactly that. Opposing offenses are shooting 36.5 percent on their field goals (1st in NBA), 24.8 percent on threes (2nd) and are turning it over 25.3 times per game (1st). 

The defensive question marks are still there in the frontcourt and it'd be naive to think the Celtics can sustain this level of stinginess on the defensive end into the season, especially against teams like Philadelphia, Denver and Milwaukee.

But hey, at least they're looking like they could be a top 10 defense this season instead of sowing their fatal flaws early in the year. 

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Celtics veterans embracing TackoMania -- and all the rookie good vibes

Celtics veterans embracing TackoMania -- and all the rookie good vibes

BOSTON — Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown exploded from their seats and screamed about as loud as anyone inside a delirious TD Garden. Behind them, Marcus Smart clambered onto their vacant bench chairs and threw his hands to the sky, nearly tumbling over in his giddiness.

“I was just trying to be the same height as Tacko [Fall],” cracked Smart, referencing the 7-foot-7 big man whose second slam of the night turned the Celtics bench into human popcorn.

Moments earlier, the Garden had roared with playoff-like intensity when Fall, formally signed to a 2-way contract Sunday morning, got behind a pair of defenders and delivered an emphatic two-handed slam. Kemba Walker, Boston’s All-Star offseason signee, wrapped one arm around the neck of Smart and the other around Jaylen Brown, then lifted his feet off the ground and swung with the joy of a young child.

On a night the Celtics led by as much as 54 en route to a lopsided 118-72 triumph over the visiting Cavaliers, the veterans on the bench seemed to enjoy rooting for the rookies maybe more than building the lead.

Yes, part of the hysteria was the inescapable pull of TackoMania. It was Smart who, when coach Brad Stevens called for Fall to enter, stood up beside him and repeatedly implored the Garden crowd to get loud as Fall headed to the scorer’s table.

But Smart said the reason for Boston’s unbridled joy in watching its youngest players succeed goes beyond just Fall. The Celtics have eight rookies competing for roster spots in camp and seven of them could make the final 17-man roster. The bigger picture: Some of those first-year players are going to have to contribute when games are tenser than a breezy preseason matinee.

"I learned as a young guy coming in, confidence is big,” said Smart. "And we’re trying to give our young guys as much confidence as they can handle, as much as they need, as much as we can give because we’re going to need them. We got a lot of new faces out there, a lot of young new faces. We need these guys to have as much confidence as they can because, when things get tight, we need that confidence to keep going.

“But we’re really excited for those guys.”

So with every Max Strus 3-pointer — and there were four of them — the veterans sprang to their feet in support. Every time Tremont Waters channeled his inner-Isaiah Thomas while probing his way to the hoop for a leaning finger roll, the veterans snapped their towels in excitement.

"That’s what it’s about. That’s what a team is about,” said Smart. "Everybody succeeds. Those guys have worked hard, so it’s only right for us to go out there and cheer those guys on, because they do the same for us.”

The camaraderie of the rookies is palpable on this squad. It’s also manifested itself in a shared work ethic and a desire to improve, which hasn’t been lost on Stevens.

“[Strus], Javonte [Green], Tacko, Waters and obviously the guys we drafted, [Romeo] Langford and [Carsen] Edwards and [Grant] Williams, that's as good of a group of rookie workers as I've ever been around,” said Stevens. "They work. They all can play and they all have a good impact on our environment, which is important.

"Those guys — those guys grind. They are hard workers.”

Given the departures this summer, the Celtics will have to lean on those rookies. Williams and French import Vincent Poirier will get minutes in a new-look frontcourt, while Edwards has proven himself capable of scoring from the instant he comes off the bench. Injuries will only open more avenues for these young players to see court time in their first NBA seasons.

The younger players appreciate the way the veterans are trying to instill an early confidence.

"It’s a team game, so we’re all in it together,” said Strus, who signed a partially guaranteed deal Sunday and then put forth his best in-game case for earning the 15th roster spot. "We work together every day, non-stop. We all look out for each other and we cheer for [the veterans], they cheer for us, and it’s great to have that camaraderie on this team.”

It’s almost too easy to point to this start-of-the-year chemistry and suggest how different it is from last season when there, at times, seemed to be a divide between the “young guys,” and more established veterans. But these Celtics have worked hard to avoid comparisons between this year and last, and their actions this season are simply an understanding that everyone needs to be pulling in the same direction if this team is going to outkick the already tempered expectations.

There’s still an excitement at what this team can become and some of that will be dictated by how much younger players improve, and how much they can handle from the jump. Impossibly, players like Walker and Brown have flown quietly under the radar this preseason because some rookies have taken much of the spotlight, which amuses Stevens.

"Everybody’s flying under the radar except for Tacko,” cracked the coach. "So, that’s OK. We’ll take that.”

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