So, does Marcus Smart get credit for the Boston Celtics' early-season turnaround?
Smart certainly missed the mark with his finger-pointing comments 10 days ago, but his criticisms did force the Celtics to confront their underperforming ways. And the team has undeniably responded with a different energy in the aftermath.
Smart sounded off following an embarrassing loss to the Chicago Bulls on November 1 and the team huddled for a players-only meeting the next night in Orlando. In the four games since, Boston has shown signs of the grit- and defense-first team it expected to be, all while winning three times. (Heck, the Celtics might have gone 4-0 if not for a Smart lapse in the final seconds in Dallas).
Boston’s defensive rating over the past four games is 93.9. If maintained, that’d be the best number in the league by more than four points. The Celtics have held opponents to point totals of 79, 78, 104, and 88 in that four-game span.
After Boston’s win over the Raptors on Wednesday night, Smart stepped in front of the microphones for the first time since his original comments that criticized Boston’s late-game offense and, specifically, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s need to pass more in those moments. Smart almost certainly should have put the focus on the defensive end, maybe even shouldered some of the blame.
But the uncomfortable moment seemingly forced uncomfortable conversations. That, combined with growing familiarity with a new coach and new defensive schemes, has allowed Boston to start building the identity it lacked at the start of the season.
Asked about his comments and the fallout, Smart Euro-stepped right around them Wednesday night.
"We had a great game. It's a great game. We won, first home win,” Smart said while fully aware he was side-stepping the query. "So, like I said, it was much needed. Got another one on Friday to take care of.”
Yep, it appears everybody learned from that outburst. Even Smart, who ensured he didn't accidentally pour more gasoline on a fire that the Celtics have just started snuffing out.
Now, we’ll quickly rescind Smart’s credit if this team reverts to bad habits. A visit from the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night will give us a better idea of just how stout this defense can be. But there’s been quick and encouraging progress that starts with simply the effort level.
Ultimately, winning cures everything, even more than team dinners. The Celtics should feel good about the progress they’ve made but this team can’t get content.
The Celtics atoned for getting their doors blown off in their home-opener against Toronto by stiff-arming all of the Raptors' runs on Wednesday night. That’s progress, too. And Smart hinted that the team needed an attitude adjustment after getting punched in the mouth a few times out of the gates.
“You just gotta change your attitude,” said Smart. "That’s what it was from the start. Those teams come in -- Chicago came in with an attitude, Toronto came in the first game with an attitude that we didn't match, and it showed. They triumphed against us in those games. So we had to change our attitude and we had to get our mindset right.”
Robert Williams, fresh off a 16-point, 13-rebound night, suggested the Celtics might finally be building an identity after wandering aimlessly for the first seven games. And he credits the off-the-court time together.
"I feel like we’re coming together off of the court more, bonding, actually finding out stuff about each other,” said Williams. "We’re all basketball players, we’re all hoopers, but we’ve got to build that bond, that strength of knowing I can go to war with these guys beside me, off the court, too -- knowing I can go to war with these guys. I feel like we’ve been stepping up on there but we’ve got to carry it over all year.”
And how exactly have they built those bonds?
"More team dinners, more vets reaching out, setting things up. Just talking,” said Williams. "I try to communicate with guys the whole practice. I know y’all [reporters] are in [the building], y’all hear me joking around and stuff, but it’s just, show we’re a brotherhood and we’ll fight for each other.”
So maybe that bread-breaking in Orlando was more productive than it seemed in the moment. Even if it wasn’t Smart’s intent, he pushed the team down a path it might have otherwise kept avoiding.
So what does Williams believe the identity of this team should be?
"We need that toughness, man. That’s all I’m worried about right now, toughness,” said Williams. “Mess-ups are gonna happen but I’d rather go out there with guys that are gonna go hard as hell any time we play, you feel me? So that’s what I’m looking for.”
And maybe that’s all Smart was looking for, too.