Marcus Smart displays MVP defense against Giannis Antetokounmpo in US win over Greece

Marcus Smart displays MVP defense against Giannis Antetokounmpo in US win over Greece

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by anything Marcus Smart does on the defensive end, especially considering his overdue ascension to All-Defense first-teamer last season, and yet it’s still hypnotizing to watch Smart on that end of the court.

Smart's defensive mixtape got a new entry Saturday when, early in the second quarter of Team USA’s 69-53 victory over Greece at the FIBA World Cup, Smart turned into a whirling dervish while tasked with defending reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Twice the 7-foot Antetokounmpo tried to post up the 6-foot-4 Smart and twice Smart spun his way around the olive tree to prevent an entry pass. As if that effort wasn’t enough, it was Smart racing out from underneath the basket to contest a 3-point shot to cap the defensive stand.

Guarding big men is nothing new for Smart, who routinely takes on the challenge of defending NBA bigs. With Team USA playing small, Smart embraced the task again as the Americans opened Round 2 by limiting Greece to 53 points in a 16-point triumph in Shenzhen.

International play, particularly with a shorter 3-point line and lack of defensive 3-second violation, makes it a little easier for a player with Smart’s tenacity to joust with a big such as Antetokounmpo. The lack of knockdown shooters on the perimeters for Greece and the ability for Team USA teammates to help clog the path to Antetokounmpo helps, too. Which is to say that Smart vs. Antetokounmpo is not something the Celtics could routinely embrace during the NBA season.

But as the Celtics get set to enter the 2019-20 season with a new-look frontcourt and attempt to figure out how to limit the likes of Antetokounmpo without the services of Al Horford and Aron Baynes, it’s fair to wonder if the Celtics can lean a little heavier on the likes of Smart, particularly when rolling with small-ball lineups.

The NBA’s defensive matchup data suggests that Smart has defended Antetokounmpo on 54 possessions over the past two seasons when you include regular season and playoffs. In that span, Antetokounmpo generated 18 points on 54 possessions, making 6 of 12 attempts overall, and adding six free throws.

What’s most notable about the numbers is how few possessions Smart spent on Antetokounmpo last postseason. He was credited with only two possessions defended. That’s cringeworthy to Celtics fans who watched Kyrie Irving repeatedly pick up Antetokounmpo and was credited with 16 possessions defended.

Now, matchup data can be noisy but instances like Saturday suggest it wouldn’t be the worst idea if coach Brad Stevens deployed Smart on bigs in small bursts, if for no other reason than to limit the amount of possessions the team’s bigs have to joust. Boston is also lucky to have a player like Semi Ojeleye off the bench who Stevens can throw at the likes of Antetokounmpo.

Ultimately, it goes back to a common theme this offseason: The Celtics lost a lot of defensive talent in their frontcourt and, as they brace for a bit of a center-by-committee experiment, it puts a little more pressure on veterans like Smart and Gordon Hayward to keep the defense afloat. When you lose a Horford, everybody has to pull a little harder with their end of the rope.

Remember, too, that Smart sat out Team USA’s group-play finale Thursday due to the lingering soreness in his calf/quad that previously forced him to sit out some of the Americans’ training camp. There’s not a lot of players that can go from sidelined by an injury to defending an MVP with an 8-inch height advantage and hold their own.

But, well, we shouldn’t be surprised by anything Smart does at this point — particularly when it involves defense, or coming back from injury without missing a beat.

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Walker again lead Team USA past Greece 69-53 at FIBA World Cup

Walker again lead Team USA past Greece 69-53 at FIBA World Cup

Kemba Walker had 15 points and six assists and Jaylen Brown a team-leading nine rebounds and eight points as Team USA defeated Greece 69-53 on Saturday morning to advance to the quarterfinals of the FIBA World Cup tournament in China. BOX SCORE

Marcus Smart, returning after missing the victory over Japan with a quad injury, scored three points off the bench in 17 minutes. The other member of the Celtics on the US team, Jayson Tatum, is still recovering from an ankle sprain suffered earlier in the week vs. Turkey.

NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks led Greece with 15 points and 13 rebounds. He was defended by Smart for most of Smart's minutes.

Amid handshakes at the end of the game, Antetokounmpo appeared to exchange words with Brown before being separated by US guard Khris Middleton, Antetokounmpo's Bucks teammate.

Team USA (4-0) outscored Greece 35-19 in the second and third quarters and the Greeks got no closer than 11 points the rest of the way. The US, atop Group K and into the quarterfinals, next plays Monday against Brazil. 

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How to watch Team USA basketball play Greece in the FIBA World Cup

How to watch Team USA basketball play Greece in the FIBA World Cup

The United States takes on NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Greece at the FIBA World Cup on Saturday morning in China.

Team USA features four Boston Celtics - Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum. Smart, who sat out the victory over Japan on Thursday with a quad injury, is expected to play vs. Greece. Tatum, who sprained his ankle last week in a victory over Turkey, will be out a few more days.

Here's how to watch the game online:

Time: 8:30 a.m.

Livestream: ESPN+ 

 

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.