Every couple weeks, Marcus Smart produces a performance so absurd it makes you wonder if there is anyone more vital to the Boston Celtics’ overall success.
He is, of course, not the MVP of the team — that’s Jayson Tatum — and the stats suggest there are others like Jaylen Brown who typically have a bigger imprint on Boston’s wins. But there is simply no one on this roster who routinely makes the sort of game-changing play that Smart does. He’s a Tasmanian Devil on the basketball court whose main focus is chaos and disruption.
Wednesday night in Portland was the full Marcus Smart experience. He spent most of his night with his sleeves rolled up trying to slow down Damian Lillard, produced two of the most ridiculous defensive sequences of the season for a Boston team that’s slowly finding its mojo on that end of the floor, and capped his night with a perfectly missed free throw that allowed the Celtics to escape with a one-point win and their fourth straight victory.
When a reporter wondered if some had forgotten just how impactful Smart could be because of his uneven ways this season, Smart boldly proclaimed, “Just getting started.”
Pressed on the suggestion, he added, "Just getting started to getting back to where I was, proving to people and letting people know not to forget who I am on that defensive end and what I do. Being a two-time defensive first team. So I’ve heard [the suggestion that his defense hasn’t been as good this season].
"I heard the talks about me … the injury probably affecting me, I lost a step, all kinds of things. And it is what it is. I know what I can do, my teammates know what I can do, the league knows what I can do, and that’s just extra motivation for me to go out there and prove it.”
Lillard certainly knows it. The NBA’s tracking data had Smart limiting the MVP candidate to three points on 1-of-5 shooting in nearly six minutes of matchup time on Tuesday night. Smart made only one late-game misstep against Lillard but otherwise kept Boston in the game when you consider that Lillard scored 25 points on 8-of-16 shooting against all other Boston defenders.
But Smart’s best moments were the ones that couldn’t be schemed. Norman Powell probably has nightmares about trying to finish over Smart in transition. Seven months after Smart’s win-preserving block on Powell in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals versus the Toronto Raptors, Smart again produced an absurd denial of Powell in his new basketball home.
Boston was up five midway through the fourth quarter when Powell raced towards the basket in transition with only Smart backpedaling in front of him. Smart managed to stay in front and when Powell leaped near the charge circle, Smart went up with him and produced a left-handed swat.
The Blazers maintained possession and even though Boston was mismatched defensively, the 6-foot-3 Smart promptly thrust his hip into the side of 7-foot, 290-pound Jusuf Nurkic as the hulking big man tried to set up shop near the basket. When Carmelo Anthony zipped the ball inside trying to exploit the perceived matchup, Smart — a self-professed stretch six -- lunged like a defensive back and deflected the ball to Payton Pritchard for a steal.
Somehow, this wasn’t even Smart’s most ridiculous stretch of defense during this game. In the first half, he produced a hustle sequence that ought to be framed and placed on the wall inside the Louvre — or at least somewhere in the Hoop Hall in Springfield.
CJ McCollum was tiptoeing back to corral a loose ball in the Blazers backcourt when Smart hit the slip-and-slide trying to win a race to the ball that he had no business even chasing. Skidding almost to the baseline, Smart disappeared from the TV view as play went the other way.
McCollum, noting the absence of his defender, started running down the lane for what should have been an easy layup. Instead, Smart came sprinting from behind the play and intercepted Enes Kanter’s feed. For style points, Smart somehow managed to, in one motion, flick the ball behind his back before his momentum sent him zipping beyond the end line.
The feed hit an unsuspecting Tristan Thompson directly in the hands.
“He’s first team all-defense two years in a row, so I don’t think it should be a surprise to see some of the stuff he does,” Brown said in his walk-off interview. "But it’s definitely a necessity for our team.”
If Smart earns another All-Defense nod this season, it will largely be on reputation. By his own admission, he hasn’t played to his own lofty standards for parts of the season, and missing 18 games due to a calf strain didn’t help matters.
But as the Celtics start to make fourth-quarter defense part of their identity on this late-season surge— the green lead the league in final-frame defensive rating over the past 14 games — it’s Smart who is setting that tone.
"We’re not going to always score the ball very well every night, so we have to be able to go down and get some stops, especially in crunch time,” said Smart. “So for us to be able to hold each other accountable, and it starts with me being the defensive leader on this team, being one of the leaders on this team, guys see me holding my own self accountable, it should be no excuse for anybody else.”
For the season, Smart is still holding his opponents to 44.8 percent shooting, or 1.6 percent below expectation, per the league’s tracking data. That’s rather impressive considering the level of player he's routinely tasked with defending.
Asked about Smart’s steadying effect on this team, Tatum noted, "We respect him. We respect everything that he's accomplished and what he brings to the table. When somebody has your respect, they're gonna listen to you, good times or bad. And we know he means well, so like a lot of other guys, when Smart is talking, we're gonna listen because we know it's for the best and everybody respects him.”