Stop being surprised by Marcus Smart's 3-point shooting

Stop being surprised by Marcus Smart's 3-point shooting

It’s time to stop acting so surprised by Marcus Smart’s 3-point shooting.

We now have the past 2 1/2 years of data that suggests that, when healthy, Smart is an above-average 3-point shooter. He shot nearly 39.7 percent beyond the arc in Boston’s 2017 playoff run and carried the momentum into last season when he shot a career-best 36.4 percent. Eleven games into the 2019-20 season, Smart is shooting 40.8 percent while putting up a hefty 6.9 attempts per game.

This isn’t a fluke. No longer does Smart need a snow-day practice session to harness his 3-point superpowers. Smart’s hard work — and, maybe more important, sustained good health — has allowed his natural talents to be spotlighted.

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A Smart pull-up 3-pointer used to elicit groans. Now it’s one of Boston’s better looks. Yes, he's still prone to the occasional bold heat check but the results speak for themselves. Smart ranks 13th in the NBA in total 3-pointers made (31) this season and there’s no reason to believe that, given the offensive talent around him this season, this isn’t sustainable.

This isn’t Smart getting hot from one spot or feasting on just open catch-and-shoot looks. On Friday night against Golden State in San Francisco, Smart made five 3-pointers, confidently firing when the ball came his way in transition. When the Celtics kicked out to Smart after an offensive rebound late in the first quarter, it kickstarted their comeback from a 15-point deficit. Early in the fourth quarter, when a defender rushed to impede his path to the paint, Smart hit a little step-back 3-pointer from straightaway.

Smart finished 5-for-9 beyond the arc. It’s the 13th time in his career that he’s made at least five triples in a game (including postseason). Eleven of those have come in the past two-plus seasons. He’s made at least four 3-pointers in each of Boston’s past four wins.

The inconsistencies you remember from the past might have had more to do with health than talent.

Whether it was shredding his hand punching a mirror a few years back or tearing a ligament in his thumb later that season, there have been ailments that contributed to stretches of poor shooting. Still, what Smart is doing now doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone in the Celtics organization.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge have long maintained that Smart had the right mechanics to thrive with the 3-point shot. He’s certainly never lacked for confidence. Assistant coach Jay Larranaga spent a lot of time working with Smart when that shot struggled early in his career. Now Smart fires away with the confidence of someone that completely trusts his shot.

The 3-point shot now accounts for just under 70 percent of Smart’s total shot attempts this season. That’s up from 61 percent last season. While Boston’s offensive quartet of Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward have relentlessly attacked the basket this year — Boston’s drives way up from a season ago — Smart has been the beneficiary of drive-and-kicks, particularly when the driver kicks out with a hockey assist and the ball moves quickly to Smart while catching the defense in rotation.

Even better, Smart’s 3-point penchant hasn’t come at the expense of his playmaking. He’s still averaging 4.6 assists per game, providing needed ball-handling with Hayward injured and taking some of the load off Walker.

The NBA’s shot-tracking data hammers home Smart’s better shot selection in recent years. Half of Smart’s 3-point attempts this season have come with zero dribbles and he’s made 40 percent (22 of 55) of those quality catch-and-shoot looks. Smart is shooting 43.6 percent on all “wide-open” 3-pointers (6 feet or more of space) and 38.7 on “open” looks (4-6 feet). More encouraging: He has only six attempts in what’s deemed tight (2-4 feet) coverage and none with “very tight (0-2 feet).

In fact, Smart hasn’t taken a “very tight” covered 3-pointer in either of the past two seasons. Smart isn’t forcing anything and showing a greater maturity in shot selection than at times earlier in his career.

We get it — it was those ill-timed, defense-smothered 3-pointers that used to make fans cringe. Smart didn’t shoot the ball well enough early in his career to justify some of the bold pull-up offerings he’d take.

Now he does. He's earned that trust. And it's time to stop being so surprised when those shots go in.

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Next step for Celtics: More poise under pressure

Next step for Celtics: More poise under pressure

BOSTON — The Boston Celtics’ fourth-quarter execution the past two games can be summed up in one sequence.

After clawing their way back into Thursday night’s visit from the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston found itself down 3 with 25.7 seconds to go with the ball. But the Sixers applied full-court pressure and inbounder Jayson Tatum panicked a bit while waiting for Jaylen Brown to race back to receive the pass. Brown ultimately got tangled with Josh Richardson and fell to the floor as Tatum’s pass sailed wide and bounced out of bounds near the Sixers' bench.

Painful as it would have been, the Celtics could have burnt their final timeout. They could have simply handled Philadelphia’s pressure better and not fumbled the ball — and the game — away.

Ultimately, great teams find a way to win this sort of game. Or the one 24 hours earlier when Boston kicked away a double-digit fourth-quarter lead in Indiana.

Save the excuses about available bodies and bad calls and whatever else you want to blame. The Celtics, seemingly unflappable in the face of in-game adversity early in the year, wilted twice against primary Eastern Conference rivals the past 48 hours.

Because of that, Boston arrives at a very random five-day December break in its schedule at a respectable 17-7 overall, but with a bit of a sour taste from dropping two games against potential East playoff foes. The Celtics have slipped to fourth in the conference with Philadelphia executing a leapfrog after Thursday’s 115-109 triumph at TD Garden.

“We just have to learn how to win,” said Kemba Walker, who scored a team-high 29 points against Philadelphia but got limited to 8 points with only one field goal after the intermission. All this one day after Boston wasted a 44-point outburst when Indiana rallied for a 122-117 victory.

"We have a lot of lapses during these games. We have stretches where we’re playing super well. And then we have lapses,” said Walker. “We just have times where we’re just — it’s bad. It just looks really bad. So we just have to tone that down a little bit, just try our best to put a 48-minute games together. And that’s going to take everybody.”

Maybe it’s greedy to suggest the Celtics should win these sort of games. After an opening-night loss in Philadelphia, Boston ripped off 10 straight wins and had won six of seven entering this week’s back-to-back. These young Celtics had been so cool under pressure that it’s been a bit jarring to see them get sloppy and shoot themselves in the foot with mental miscues.

"I think, going in, when you look at the schedule you know this is going to be a tough one but, once you’re in the heat of the moment, you’re not really feeling those effects,” said Gordon Hayward, who departed Wednesday’s game in Indiana after getting hit in the nose but didn’t look overly hindered against Philadelphia.

"I think two emotional losses for us. Certainly, it’s tough in games that go down to the wire. I felt like we had chances in both. But it is what it is. It’s a long season, it’s part of it. We’ve got to try to learn from it and move on but we can’t blame it on legs. We’re professional athletes. We should be able to handle that.”

Yes, Marcus Smart would help in these situations. But the Pacers were playing without Victor Oladipo, and the Sixers didn’t have Al Horford, who got a standing ovation when shown on the Philadelphia bench at the start of the second quarter.

The Celtics, if they want to be honest-to-goodness contenders, need to win these sort of games. It was one thing to find a silver lining when they took the Clippers to overtime last month on the road but the last two games have lacked the defensive focus displayed during much of Boston’s early-season success.

To be sure, there are positives to pluck from these two games. Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter held up surprisingly well while jousting with Joel Embiid. Philadelphia’s All-Star big man finished with 38 points on 12-of-21 shooting with 13 rebounds and 6 assists. He did a nice job dominating in 1-on-1 matchups and showcased his passing skills while generating open looks for teammates when Boston sent multiple bodies at him.

Kanter turned in his best game of the year and Theis played well for much of the night. The duo combined for 36 points and14 rebounds, essentially negating Embiid’s output (though his impact went far beyond those two stat categories).

The next step for these Celtics is consistently staying poised in high-pressure moments. Players have to avoid careless turnovers, they have to be willing to work for good looks on the offensive end, and they can’t lose focus on the defensive side.

While it’s obvious the Celtics never consider themselves out of a game, they’ve got to be better when things get tense.

"One thing I love about us is that we’re not quitting. We’re still fighting through adversity,” said Walker. "When things are getting rough we’re not putting our heads down, man. We’re competing at a very high level. So it can only go up from here.”

Unfortunately for Stevens, it’s plays like the inbounds turnover that will gnaw at him until the Celtics get back on the practice court next week. Boston doesn’t play another game until Wednesday night in Dallas.

That’s a lot of time to ponder how Thursday’s game got away. And Wednesday’s before it.

“We didn’t get the ball [inbounds],” Stevens said after Thursday’s loss. "I think that’s obviously -- you gotta be able to do those things in the biggest moments and we didn’t get that done.”

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Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Mavericks, which tips off Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call at 9:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Joel Embiid pays Celtics fans the ultimate compliment ... but still loves silencing them

Joel Embiid pays Celtics fans the ultimate compliment ... but still loves silencing them

BOSTON -- Few professional athletes embrace hate like Joel Embiid.

The Philadelphia 76ers big man channeled recent criticism from Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal into a tour de force performance at TD Garden on Thursday night, tallying a season-high 38 points, 13 rebounds and six assists to hand the Boston Celtics their first home loss, 115-109.

Embiid also fed off the Garden crowd, which booed the big man heartily throughout the night.

The 25-year-old tipped his cap to the Boston faithful after the game, admitting the loudest crowd he's ever dealt with in an NBA game was the Garden during a second-round playoff game in 2018.

"They've got great fans. They're loud," Embiid said. "The loudest (game) I've ever been a part of was actually here in Game 2, two years ago in the playoffs.

"We were up by 20 and they made their run. It was loud and my ears were popping. That's the loudest (it's) ever been (for me) in an arena."

The Celtics stormed back to win that game 108-103, taking a 2-0 series lead over Philly en route to a five-game series win.

A year and a half later, Boston wasn't so lucky.

Embiid had been in a bit of funk over his last few games but seemed revitalized by the hostile Garden environment, relishing in making big plays like this dagger 3-pointer in the fourth quarter:

"They talk a lot of trash, and I like that," Embiid said. "It gets me going. I had that fun mentality about me tonight. Just reacting to them and playing off it."

Boston and Philly will meet twice more this season, with the Sixers coming to the Garden again on Feb. 1. Celtics fans can boo Embiid all they want, but they should be warned that it may not have the desired effect.

"Joel really set the tone of how we were going to play today," Sixers teammate Tobias Harris added. "His energy, his interactions at timeouts and dead balls: He was the man today."

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Mavericks, which tips off Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call at 9:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.