Marcus Smart has a message for teams wanting him to defend bigger players

Marcus Smart has a message for teams wanting him to defend bigger players

BOSTON -- The growth in Marcus Smart’s game defensively has been undeniable, earning him the status of being one of the NBA’s premier defenders. 

But this season, it seems Smart has taken his defense -- and in doing so, the Celtics -- to another level.

Smart's elevated defensive play was on display in Boston’s 116-106 win over the Dallas Mavericks, a game in which Smart matched up at times with Luke Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, who are taller than Smart by four and 10 inches, respectively. 

Despite the height disadvantage, Smart was equally up to the test limiting both players under his watch.

Doncic led all scorers with 32 points while shooting an efficient 11-for-21 from the field. 

While guarded by Smart, however, the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year had just two points while missing four of his five shot attempts.

The struggles were even more pronounced for Porzingis, who missed all three of his shot attempts with Smart defending him. 

Coming into Monday’s game, players defended by Smart who are 6-foot-8 and taller shot 40.7 percent on a combined 11-for-27 from the field. 

Take out Kevin Love's 4-for-8 performance against Smart last week, and the remaining 30 players he has defended who are 6-foot-8 or taller are a combined 7-for-19 (36.8 percent). 

Defending taller defenders is something Smart embraces.

“I love it,” Smart said. “It’s a challenge that I love every time I get the call. I pride myself on the defensive end. That’s where I earn my keep. Matched up against those guys, I never think of it as a disadvantage for me. I think it’s an advantage for me on both ends.”

In addition to his strong play defensively, Smart is also averaging a career-high 11.1 points per game this season while shooting 37.3 percent from 3-point range -- also a career high. 

Smart obviously is looking to score more going forward, but he remains focused on defense, something he has been really good at for a long time. 

And this season, he appears to be even better, which is why Smart has a simple message for teams looking to create what they believe are mismatches that force Smart to guard bigger players. 

“Keep it coming," Smart said. “Plain and simple, keep it coming."

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Grant Williams part of new class of NBA players in reboot — experienced rookie

Grant Williams part of new class of NBA players in reboot — experienced rookie

The NBA calendar looks nothing like what we’re used to after a four-month pause courtesy of the global coronavirus pandemic.

This once-in-a-lifetime new look to the season has created a new class of NBA players — experienced rookies. 

“If you ask any of the guys on the team, I’m still a rookie,” said Williams. 

Maybe so, but Williams and most of his fellow first-year players are unlike any rookie class the league has seen before. 

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The extended time away from the game due to the pandemic afforded them what amounts to an in-season offseason. 

And while this holds true for veterans as well, vets have the luxury of how to make the most of their downtime because they’ve been there and done that before. For rookies like Williams, the stoppage of play was in many respects their first offseason, making the reboot to the season more like season No. 2 for them. 

That time away did more than provide youngsters like Williams a chance to heal up some of the many bumps and bruises that reminded them on a daily basis that this ain’t college!

But the time off also afforded them the benefit of perspective; that is, to see where they are at and what they must do to get better with the knowledge that an opportunity to put all that together in a meaningful, purposeful way would be coming soon. 

It’s clear that Williams has used the downtime to prepare to be an impactful player for the Celtics, void of the concerns, uncertainty and nervousness that he was feeling at the start of the season. 

While he was a two-time SEC Player of the Year, Williams entered the NBA as a late first-round pick whose impact in both the short and long-term for Boston was unclear. But as the season wore on and he continued to see playing time, Williams admits it built up a much greater level of comfort for him heading into the restart to the season at the end of this month. 

“During the year you get more accustomed and realize you belong here,” Williams said. “For me it’s more confidence, more able to do a lot of better things on the court.”

And while the Celtics are among the top teams in the East this season, their success in making a deep playoff run will hinge to some degree on how many low-key X-factors step up and contribute — players like Williams, who saw more playing time as a rookie than any of Boston’s other first-year players. 

Williams appeared in 62 games (5 starts) while averaging 3.5 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.0 assists in 15.6 minutes per game. In his five starts (Boston went 4-1 in those games), he averaged 5.2 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.6 assists.

Is it time for the Celtics to worry about Kemba Walker's knee?

Is it time for the Celtics to worry about Kemba Walker's knee?

Brad Stevens revealed Monday that Kemba Walker experienced “a little bit of discomfort” in his left knee after individual workouts in Boston.

That’s not the news that Celtics fans, long convinced their team is snakebitten when it comes to star players and injuries, were hoping to hear after the team’s four-month break without basketball.

Walker was held out of practice again Monday as he continued a four-day strengthening program aimed at keeping Walker upright inside the bubble. Stevens had previously noted that the team will limit Walker’s minutes during scrimmages and seeding games with hopes that will allow Walker to operate without restrictions when the playoffs begin in mid-August.

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Just 12 days ago, Walker deemed himself “ready to go,” while noting how the break was “super important” to get him comfortable on the knee again. Walker had his left knee drained and received Synvisc injections to combat swelling and soreness that caused him to miss a total of 10 games, including two stretches in February.

For any other team, this might not be reason for concern. For the team that’s dealt with Larry Bird’s back, Kevin Garnett’s knee, Shaquille O’Neal’s heel, Isaiah Thomas’ hip, Gordon Hayward’s ankle, and Kyrie Irving’s knee, this is just the latest in a long line of injuries to star players that lingered into the postseason.

Making it all the more tough to swallow is that Walker had been an NBA ironman early in his career, appearing in 94.5 percent of Charlotte’s regular-season games during his first eight years in the NBA. In Boston, he missed nearly a quarter of the team’s 64 games, and it could have been more if he hadn’t avoided a serious neck injury in a scary on-court collision in Denver.

It’s fair to be concerned about Walker’s long-term health. He’s a 30-year-old, undersized guard who relies on that knee for speed and explosion. The Walker we saw early in the new calendar year was a shell of the All-Star who shot nearly 40 percent beyond the 3-point arc for the first 46 games of his Celtics career.

If the Celtics were trying to calm the masses, a social media post with Walker hitting nine consecutive 3-pointers after Monday’s session was a much-needed glimpse.

Enes Kanter noted that Walker had slimmed down during the break in the season, which could aid the wear and tear on that bothersome knee. The question is whether Walker can play at an All-Star-caliber level again after all the downtime or will the knee require greater maintenance down the road?

We should get some answers soon. Stevens said Walker would get his workload elevated Wednesday after the team takes a day off on Tuesday. Stevens admitted he’s eager to see his team at full health, something it so rarely was during much of the season.

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The Celtics have treaded carefully, particularly with knee issues, in recent seasons. Horford, in particular, would take stretches off with the goal of strengthening a balky knee and the Celtics were able to lean on him for 35 minutes per game while appearing in all 46 of Boston’s playoff games during his three-year tenure.

If this is simply the Celtics treading extra cautiously given the unique circumstances, then it might not be as concerning as initially thought.

"He certainly, I think, feels better than he did even in March,” said Stevens. "But with just even the small discomfort, we said, 'Let's take the four days, and ramp it up appropriately.’

"The No. 1 thing is strength, and strength around the knee. Hard to do that with the four days we just had. … I think it makes a lot of sense to then ramp him up as we start up again on Wednesday. That may mean he's a little bit behind when we start scrimmage play and when we start seeding games play from his normal minutes but his health is the most important thing and it's not just for this particular period; it's for the long run and strength around the knee is important.”

But it’s undeniable that Walker’s presence is vital to Boston’s success. For as good as Jayson Tatum was in February and March, masking Walker’s on-court struggles, the Celtics need multiple star-level options to lean on during the postseason.

They absolutely need a healthy Walker when the playoffs start up.