Celtics Mailbag: Could Marcus Smart really win Defensive Player of the Year?

Celtics Mailbag: Could Marcus Smart really win Defensive Player of the Year?

It took Marcus Smart five seasons to muscle his way onto the NBA’s All-Defense squad so let’s start this movement early: Marcus Smart deserves consideration for Defensive Player of the Year.

Let’s be clear here: It’s a longshot for Smart, but he certainly deserves more attention nationally for the defensive wizardry we see on a nightly basis. The question of Smart’s candidacy is a common one in the mailbag but the inquiries have increased lately, in part because of Smart’s efforts in keeping this defense afloat after the departures of Al Horford and Aron Baynes.

The immediate reaction is to completely dismiss the possibility of Smart truly making a run at the league’s top defensive honor. After all, it’s been 24 years since a guard won it in Seattle’s Gary Payton. You’d have to go back to Michael Jordan in 1988 to find another time a guard emerged with the honor. 

The DPoY honor has become a big man’s award, almost exclusively celebrating the NBA’s best rim protectors (think Rudy Gobert or Dwight Howard) or versatile 4s (think Draymond Green or Kevin Garnett). The only real interloper has been 6-foot-7 swingman Kawhi Leonard, whose ability to smother all forms of perimeter players aided his candidacy. 

The 6-foot-3 Smart, a self-proclaimed “stretch-6” and arguably the best defensive center on Boston’s roster, deserves consideration this year for the uptick in reps against players as much as a foot taller than him. No other guard is doing what Smart is, and certainly not as often or as efficiently.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has essentially tasked Smart with logging heavy reps against the opposition’s top threat, regardless of size.

Last month, Smart limited reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to 5 points on 1-of-2 shooting while forcing three turnovers in 4 ½ minutes of matchup time, per the NBA’s defensive tracking data. Last week, Smart held future MVP Luka Doncic to 4 points on 1-of-5 shooting over 7:15 of matchup time.

On Wednesday night, a dinged-up Smart will almost certainly try to talk his way into playing against the Clippers despite dealing with a sprained ankle, bruised hip, and two sprained fingers, all because he wants to be out there against Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. This despite the fact that Leonard often dominated the matchup against Smart last season.

But that’s Smart in a nutshell: Always yearning for the next challenge. In that Mavericks game, he gleefully spent one possession defending Doncic, then took a turn on 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis, who was 0-for-3 shooting with a turnover in a minute of matchup time against Smart.

Through 13 games, Smart’s matchups have connected on 37 of 112 shot attempts, or a mere 33 percent. That’s 11.4 percent lower than his defended players’ season averages, per the NBA’s tracking data. Maybe most notable, players are shooting 16.5 percent lower than their season average on attempts less than 10 feet from the basket against Smart. 

It’s only further confirmation that he’s Boston’s best defensive center.

Smart is 20th in the NBA in defensive win share but fourth among all players 6-foot-4 and under. The Celtics’ defensive rating is 99.4 during Smart’s 410 minutes of floor time and spikes to 104.2 when he’s on the bench. The Celtics rank sixth in the NBA in defensive rating at 102.6 overall and staying in the top 10 will be particularly key to Smart’s end-of-the-season résumé.

To be sure, Smart hasn’t been perfect. Some of the NBA’s best scorers have gotten theirs against him, most notably Buddy Hield, who scored an opponent-high 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting in five minutes of matchup time during Sunday’s streak-busting loss in Sacramento. Hield hit some monster late-game shots with Smart blanketing him. Washington’s Bradley Beal put up nine points on 3-of-3 shooting against Smart last week.

But Smart has been up to the challenge far more often than not. The Celtics are not 11-2 without his efforts. The disruption and chaos that he causes is unrivaled. If Smart’s body can withstand the pounding he’s taking by embracing all these matchups, he deserves consideration for DPoY. Winning is a longshot but earning a share of the votes would be a real accomplishment for a guard.

Let’s stick with the Smart theme in this week’s ‘bag: 

Is it true Marcus Smart has never received the common cold? — @fongos1

Smart’s ability to play through bumps and bruises and his Wolverine-like ability to heal bigger maladies is truly remarkable. Smart needed assistance hobbling off the floor after spraining his right ankle in a non-contact injury Monday night, then boldly suggested he would have returned if the game had been closer. In a league defined lately by “load management,” Smart seems to think that’s a load of you-know-what. Smart told reporters in Phoenix: “It’s in my DNA [to play through pain]. That’s all I know … that’s just how I was raised.”

Is Jaylen Brown a serious candidate for most improved? If Gordon Hayward comes back healthy and Smart goes back to the bench, is he Sixth Man of the Year? — @PrimeTimeJKline

Victor Oladipo won the Most Improved honor two seasons ago after ascending to All-Star status in his first season in Indiana, his scoring average jumping 7 points that season. Pascal Siakam won it a year ago with a scoring leap of 9 points — and what’s crazy is he’s on pace to do the same this year, which might just earn him the honor a second time, especially with an All-Star nod likely coming. Brown will be in the conversation — and deserves it for his obvious progress in ball-handling, playmaking, and finishing — but the competition will be strong.

As for Smart, you can certainly make the case that, between his defense, his improved offensive efficiency, and his leadership, he is one of the most impactful backups in the league. Alas, the Sixth Man award typically skews towards a scorer.


Does this team's bench have championship-level potential? — @henrymeader

It’s hard to say for certain, if only because we have yet to see this team at full health for longer than a few plays. But let’s also remember that, come playoff time, you probably only need to lean on an 8- or 9-man rotation. With Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Hayward, Brown, and Smart, Boston has the necessary perimeter talent. The question, of course, is whether the Celtics have the right bigs for a playoff path that almost certainly will include Antetokounmpo and the Bucks and Joel Embiid and the Sixers. For now, Stevens is seemingly assessing what he’s got with this bench before locking into the guys he can trust most. Trades will be tricky for Boston, so the buyout market might be their best hope for an in-season upgrade.

When do you think we will see Romeo Langford? — @mattgleek

Things change quickly in the NBA, but I think fans just have to condition themselves to the possibility of this being a redshirt-type year for Langford. Or maybe a Red Claws shirt year is more appropriate. The 14th overall pick tweaked his ankle in Maine on Friday night, the latest injury setback for a player who missed time at summer league (thumb surgery rehab), training camp (groin), preseason (knee sprain), and now the regular season. Maine will be important in getting reps and building confidence but we’ll continue to point to Avery Bradley as the poster child of someone who was able to work in the shadows of the G-League before really bursting onto the scene.

Let's say this awesome start is a small sample size and some things will revert to the mean. Where can we expect to see some regression (Smart's 3-point percentage? Defense rating? Turnover rate?) —  @RMotti

Turnover rate is already coming back to Earth with 46 turnovers in three games to start this road trip, and we’ve seen how not valuing the basketball can really complicate matters for this team. We jinxed Smart directly into an offensive funk by telling everyone to stop acting so surprised by his 3-point percentage but he’s going to get so many open looks in this offense that I’m not concerned about short-term fluctuations. To me, success comes down to defense with this team. On nights like Monday in Phoenix, when this team is fully engaged and flying around, they’re going to be tough to beat. The question is whether they can bring that effort consistently or if they’ll have nights like in Sacramento where that focus wanes. Staying top 6 is probably pie in the sky but a top-12 defense makes this team a legitimate contender.

Who do you think would start in Smart’s place? Grant Williams, or someone else? @fahi84 via IG

Without Hayward and Smart, Boston’s wing depth would be alarmingly thinned, especially against a team like the Clippers. I think you’d see Stevens trot out all the wing options — Grant Williams, Javonte Green, Semi Ojeleye. Who starts if Smart can’t go? Ojeleye has the most experience and might get first crack and Stevens could evaluate best matchup options on the fly.

Blakely's Takeaways from C's win over Suns>>>>>

Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Clippers, which tips off Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 10 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.  


Next step for Celtics: More poise under pressure

Next step for Celtics: More poise under pressure

BOSTON — The Boston Celtics’ fourth-quarter execution the past two games can be summed up in one sequence.

After clawing their way back into Thursday night’s visit from the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston found itself down 3 with 25.7 seconds to go with the ball. But the Sixers applied full-court pressure and inbounder Jayson Tatum panicked a bit while waiting for Jaylen Brown to race back to receive the pass. Brown ultimately got tangled with Josh Richardson and fell to the floor as Tatum’s pass sailed wide and bounced out of bounds near the Sixers' bench.

Painful as it would have been, the Celtics could have burnt their final timeout. They could have simply handled Philadelphia’s pressure better and not fumbled the ball — and the game — away.

Ultimately, great teams find a way to win this sort of game. Or the one 24 hours earlier when Boston kicked away a double-digit fourth-quarter lead in Indiana.

Save the excuses about available bodies and bad calls and whatever else you want to blame. The Celtics, seemingly unflappable in the face of in-game adversity early in the year, wilted twice against primary Eastern Conference rivals the past 48 hours.

Because of that, Boston arrives at a very random five-day December break in its schedule at a respectable 17-7 overall, but with a bit of a sour taste from dropping two games against potential East playoff foes. The Celtics have slipped to fourth in the conference with Philadelphia executing a leapfrog after Thursday’s 115-109 triumph at TD Garden.

“We just have to learn how to win,” said Kemba Walker, who scored a team-high 29 points against Philadelphia but got limited to 8 points with only one field goal after the intermission. All this one day after Boston wasted a 44-point outburst when Indiana rallied for a 122-117 victory.

"We have a lot of lapses during these games. We have stretches where we’re playing super well. And then we have lapses,” said Walker. “We just have times where we’re just — it’s bad. It just looks really bad. So we just have to tone that down a little bit, just try our best to put a 48-minute games together. And that’s going to take everybody.”

Maybe it’s greedy to suggest the Celtics should win these sort of games. After an opening-night loss in Philadelphia, Boston ripped off 10 straight wins and had won six of seven entering this week’s back-to-back. These young Celtics had been so cool under pressure that it’s been a bit jarring to see them get sloppy and shoot themselves in the foot with mental miscues.

"I think, going in, when you look at the schedule you know this is going to be a tough one but, once you’re in the heat of the moment, you’re not really feeling those effects,” said Gordon Hayward, who departed Wednesday’s game in Indiana after getting hit in the nose but didn’t look overly hindered against Philadelphia.

"I think two emotional losses for us. Certainly, it’s tough in games that go down to the wire. I felt like we had chances in both. But it is what it is. It’s a long season, it’s part of it. We’ve got to try to learn from it and move on but we can’t blame it on legs. We’re professional athletes. We should be able to handle that.”

Yes, Marcus Smart would help in these situations. But the Pacers were playing without Victor Oladipo, and the Sixers didn’t have Al Horford, who got a standing ovation when shown on the Philadelphia bench at the start of the second quarter.

The Celtics, if they want to be honest-to-goodness contenders, need to win these sort of games. It was one thing to find a silver lining when they took the Clippers to overtime last month on the road but the last two games have lacked the defensive focus displayed during much of Boston’s early-season success.

To be sure, there are positives to pluck from these two games. Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter held up surprisingly well while jousting with Joel Embiid. Philadelphia’s All-Star big man finished with 38 points on 12-of-21 shooting with 13 rebounds and 6 assists. He did a nice job dominating in 1-on-1 matchups and showcased his passing skills while generating open looks for teammates when Boston sent multiple bodies at him.

Kanter turned in his best game of the year and Theis played well for much of the night. The duo combined for 36 points and14 rebounds, essentially negating Embiid’s output (though his impact went far beyond those two stat categories).

The next step for these Celtics is consistently staying poised in high-pressure moments. Players have to avoid careless turnovers, they have to be willing to work for good looks on the offensive end, and they can’t lose focus on the defensive side.

While it’s obvious the Celtics never consider themselves out of a game, they’ve got to be better when things get tense.

"One thing I love about us is that we’re not quitting. We’re still fighting through adversity,” said Walker. "When things are getting rough we’re not putting our heads down, man. We’re competing at a very high level. So it can only go up from here.”

Unfortunately for Stevens, it’s plays like the inbounds turnover that will gnaw at him until the Celtics get back on the practice court next week. Boston doesn’t play another game until Wednesday night in Dallas.

That’s a lot of time to ponder how Thursday’s game got away. And Wednesday’s before it.

“We didn’t get the ball [inbounds],” Stevens said after Thursday’s loss. "I think that’s obviously -- you gotta be able to do those things in the biggest moments and we didn’t get that done.”

Blakely's Takeaways: Kanter shows his worth despite losing effort>>>

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Mavericks, which tips off Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call at 9:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Joel Embiid pays Celtics fans the ultimate compliment ... but still loves silencing them

Joel Embiid pays Celtics fans the ultimate compliment ... but still loves silencing them

BOSTON -- Few professional athletes embrace hate like Joel Embiid.

The Philadelphia 76ers big man channeled recent criticism from Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal into a tour de force performance at TD Garden on Thursday night, tallying a season-high 38 points, 13 rebounds and six assists to hand the Boston Celtics their first home loss, 115-109.

Embiid also fed off the Garden crowd, which booed the big man heartily throughout the night.

The 25-year-old tipped his cap to the Boston faithful after the game, admitting the loudest crowd he's ever dealt with in an NBA game was the Garden during a second-round playoff game in 2018.

"They've got great fans. They're loud," Embiid said. "The loudest (game) I've ever been a part of was actually here in Game 2, two years ago in the playoffs.

"We were up by 20 and they made their run. It was loud and my ears were popping. That's the loudest (it's) ever been (for me) in an arena."

The Celtics stormed back to win that game 108-103, taking a 2-0 series lead over Philly en route to a five-game series win.

A year and a half later, Boston wasn't so lucky.

Embiid had been in a bit of funk over his last few games but seemed revitalized by the hostile Garden environment, relishing in making big plays like this dagger 3-pointer in the fourth quarter:

"They talk a lot of trash, and I like that," Embiid said. "It gets me going. I had that fun mentality about me tonight. Just reacting to them and playing off it."

Boston and Philly will meet twice more this season, with the Sixers coming to the Garden again on Feb. 1. Celtics fans can boo Embiid all they want, but they should be warned that it may not have the desired effect.

"Joel really set the tone of how we were going to play today," Sixers teammate Tobias Harris added. "His energy, his interactions at timeouts and dead balls: He was the man today."

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Mavericks, which tips off Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call at 9:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.