BOSTON -- If an NBA reporter who hadn’t been paying close attention to the Boston Celtics this season got dropped into the team’s locker room following Monday’s win over the Brooklyn Nets, they might have been flabbergasted by what they heard.
First, Marcus Smart stepped in front of the microphones and got peppered with questions about his 3-point shooting. Soon after, Kyrie Irving entered the scrum and playfully boasted about leading the team in charge takes.
Marcus the shooter? Kyrie the defender? What in the world was going on in Boston?
But it’s probably not a coincidence that these two players, thrust together in Boston’s starting lineup after the team stumbled out of the gates of the 2018-19 season, are so clearly infecting each other. Irving and Smart, often viewed as only possessing game-changing talent on only one end of the floor, have helped each other elevate their play on the opposite side.
Irving, after absorbing his ninth charge take of the season on Monday, is now tied with Smart for the team lead. All-Star point guards with crossover mix tapes aren’t typically the type of players to throw their body in front of oncoming defenders, but Irving sits tied for 10th in the NBA in total charge takes this year, routinely throwing himself in front of the likes of John Wall, James Harden, and Jimmy Butler.
After initially scoffing at the notion that Smart and big man Aron Baynes sat ahead of him in charge takes this season — “I’m past them. I’m past them this season. I lead the team in charges, no question,” Irving playfully boasted — Irving doubled down on his recent revelation that he crunches Smart highlight videos during his downtime. It turns out that Irving marvels at the way Smart puts himself in position to draw contact.
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“It’s well documented that I watch Marcus Smart highlights. Defensively, I literally just sit at home and watch him slide his feet and be able to beat guys to spots and take charges,” said Irving. "To be able to do that at 6-4 with a great build like that, I’m like, ‘Hey, I can do that, too.’
"I just try to beat guys to the spot as much as possible and just be in the right spots. [Smart is] always in the right spots, so why wouldn’t you want to watch a guy like that? And Baynes is always in the right spots so give credit to those guys’ instinct and their length and what they use to create defensive havoc.”
Irving has declared on multiple occasions this season that he desires to be a better defender. His uptick in effort is obvious to anyone watching, even beyond the charge takes. Irving’s name mingles with Smart in many of the hustle categories now tracked by the NBA, including being the team leader in loose balls recovered. Irving also sits second on the team behind Smart in deflections.
Smart’s relentless defensive intensity forces teammates to match his effort level. Irving may never be more than an average 1-on-1 defender, but he’s finding ways to utilize his speed and basketball IQ to help the Celtics. Coach Brad Stevens is also putting him in position to sneak away from shooters at times and create his own havoc by disrupting passing lanes.
"Whatever the game needs, I think I try to give,” said Irving. "Whatever impact I can make, offensively and defensively, I’m willing to do. So, anything to get us an extra possession or creating a great possession for my teammates, I’m willing to do. It’s just playing the game the right way. That’s all. Trying to do everything.”
On the other end of the floor, Smart’s sustained spike in 3-point shooting can be traced to Irving as well. Smart has said how the 3-point contests that he, Irving, and the team’s other shooters often engage in after practices have helped him improve his 3-point consistency this season. Maybe not surprisingly, Smart has also made noticeable strides as a facilitator, thriving in pick-and-roll situations and routinely creating good looks regardless of who’s on the floor.
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Smart smiled when asked about asserting himself as a player capable of making a two-way impact.
"I remember watching some program and someone said I didn’t have the talent,” Smart told NBC Sports Boston. "I didn’t have the talent — kinda funny now hearing that. It it what it is. People are right to their opinion. But I know who I am as a player and I know what I can do.”
There’s a case to be made that Smart deserves some consideration when NBA coaches vote soon for All-Star reserves. While the Celtics have promoted Marcus Morris and Jayson Tatum as their other top All-Star candidates behind Irving, Smart’s impact is hard to ignore.
The Celtics are 14-5 with Smart in the starting lineup this season and his energy has helped Boston find a bit more consistency after the seesaw start to the year. Irving was one of the first to gush about how Smart’s presence changed things for Boston’s starting group, both upping the energy but also freeing Irving up a bit on the offensive end.
Boston owns a net rating of plus-10.5 in the 609 minutes that Smart and Irving have shared the floor this season with solid efficiencies on both sides of the ball (114.3 offense, 103.8 defense). In the 355 minutes that neither player has been on the court, Boston owns a meager net rating of plus-0.4, and neither player performs quite as well without the other.
Irving and Smart seem to be bringing out the best in each other — and their teammates. Maybe more importantly, as two of the primary leaders of a still-young team, they are setting a quality example that players can still grow and develop their games.
And sometimes all that requires is effort and energy, something that seems to be infectious with this group.
“I think we feed off everybody’s energy,” said Smart, downplaying a suggestion that his intensity forces Irving and the others to elevate their play. "Everybody’s out there giving everything they got. As a competitor, you see that, you feel it. You don’t want to be the one left in the dust so you try to go out there and match that, or do better than that guy. We got everybody out there trying to complete, trying to show who can play the hardest.
“When we play like that, and bring the best out of each other, it’s a tough team for any one to come in and beat us.”
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