WASHINGTON, D.C. — On his way to meet with reporters on Wednesday night, Boston Celtics All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving took a moment to dap up teammate Marcus Smart as they crossed paths near the media scrum. It wouldn’t be the only time that Irving showed appreciation for his new partner in Boston’s starting backcourt.
“I’m so grateful he’s on our team, you know, really,” said Irving, who might not have had a chance to hit all the big late-game shots if not for Smart’s energy jolt that woke up a lethargic Celtics team in the second half when they rallied from 11 down to win.
Smart has been a double shot of espresso for a Celtics team that stumbled groggily through the first 20 games of the season. Boston is 7-0 since Smart and Marcus Morris elevated to starting roles last month, and Smart’s impact isn’t lost on Irving.
"I just watched some of [Smart’s] highlights in college, as well as some of his playoff highlights, defensively and offensively, and it’s just unmatched,” said Irving, a well-documented connoisseur of basketball highlights from all levels.
Then Irving paused a moment, seemingly to allow reporters to digest the notion of him combing the YouTube archives for Smart sizzle reels.
“So, yeah, in my downtime I watch Marcus Smart highlights.”
NBA players, they’re just like us! It makes sense that Irving would be consuming Smart film, likely trying to figure out how the duo could work best together as a stating tandem. Or maybe, like the rest of us, Irving just found himself falling down a Smart wormhole after watching any of Smart’s floor-burn plays.
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Smart was spectacular in the second half of Wednesday’s win, a game in which coach Brad Stevens asked him to essentially serve as the team’s center in super small late-game lineups. And whenever the Celtics really needed a bucket, it was Irving running high pick-and-rolls as Smart gleefully set the sort of screens typically reserved for lumbering big men.
All this while Smart spent handfuls of defensive possessions guarding the likes of 6-foot-10 Markieff Morris or 6-foot-11 Thomas Bryant at the other end of the court.
"Smart now has officially done it all because he's played every position for us [because] he's never played the 5 and I think, [Wednesday], at the end of the game, Markieff [Morris] was guarding him and he was the one setting a lot of the screens,” said Stevens.
Smart guarding opposing bigs for a couple possessions is nothing new. He’s taken turns in the past on the likes of Kristaps Porzingis or Anthony Davis. But he usually had someone like Al Horford nearby to help in a pinch. On Wednesday, the Celtics were playing without Horford, all while Aron Baynes was restricted coming back from an ankle injury and Daniel Theis found early foul trouble. So Smart took on the challenge of defending bigs, joking his game plan was simply, “don’t get buried in the post.”
Smart changed the tenor of the game with his usual hustle and grit. He chased down loose balls, he took charges, he boxed out opposing bigs wile denying second-chance opportunities, and he even came up with some game-changing offensive boards of his own in crunch time.
Smart wasn’t perfect and Bradley Beal and Kelly Oubre Jr. both produced strong shooting numbers against him (the Wizards wings combined for 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting versus Smart, per the NBA’s data tracking). And yet Smart’s energy so clearly changed the complexion of the game and eye test confirmed his positive impact.
The NBA’s defensive tracking data reflects strongly on Smart’s play this season. Opponents are shooting 38.8 percent against him this year, per NBA data, or 5 percent below what those players have averaged overall this season. Smart has relentlessly contested perimeter shots and opponents are shooting 29.5 percent against him on anything beyond 15 feet.
Synergy Sports’ defensive data has Smart allowing a mere 0.77 points per play. That number alone ranks Smart in the 90th percentile among all NBA players but, narrow to those with at least 250 possessions defended this season, and Smart elevates to fifth overall among 113 qualifiers. The only guard allowing less points per play is Memphis’ Mike Conley (who ranks 1st on that list at 0.686 ppp).
But stats may never tell the full story with Smart. He just has a knack for making impact plays — hence his “Young Gamechanger” nickname and the #winningplays hashtag that so frequently appears when he’s on the court in the fourth quarter.
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Some grumbled when the Celtics signed Smart to a four-year, $52 million extension this summer. Smart had found a cool market as a restricted free agent but Boston clearly wasn’t willing to let him play his way into a big payday from somebody else next summer. Boston signed Smart to a deal that, at an average value of $13 million, will almost certainly seem like a bargain as salaries continue to inflate.
Those that obsess over Smart’s offensive numbers lose sight of what makes him so vital. Smart has quietly put together one of his more efficient offensive seasons, shooting a career-best 38.5 percent overall, all while attempting a career-low 3.4 3-pointers per game. Smart’s 6.9 points per game is by far the lowest of his NBA career and yet he has maybe never been so impactful as he is this season.
Teammate Marcus Morris was detailing some of Smart’s big-play moments from Wednesday night when he stopped to sum up those contributions.
"You know, Smarty type of things,” said Morris.
Pressed on what Smart brings to the Celtics, the typically loquacious Morris struggled to put it into words.
"Can't describe it,” said Morris. "You know, he's a bulldog. He's been doing that since he's been in the NBA. Even when I was on a different team, he was doing the same thing. He continues to do it. He's a guy that you love to have on your team.”
Just ask Irving. Or anyone else in Boston’s locker room.
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