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.
Just watch the defensive effort from Marcus Smart on this play. Doesn't let Giannis get post position to start, fights to front to take away a catch (man did 4 spin moves) and still gets a contest on the shooter at the end of the possession. pic.twitter.com/gIHMfIakHS— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) September 7, 2019
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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