I love him and I trust him.
There are times that I become dually overwhelmed watching Marcus Smart play basketball. I become fearful that he’s about to careen off the ledge of a proverbial cliff thanks to the force of his drives to the rim and his 26-foot threes four seconds into the shot clock. More often, I’m overwhelmed by how much energy he brings to any game, whether it be the seventh of the regular season or the seventh of the Eastern Conference semi-finals.
Today, I’m overwhelmed by the best playoff game Smart has ever played, one of the best and most complete efforts he’s ever recorded, no matter the stage. After missing Game 1 because of a foot sprain — another reason to be overwhelmed every time he fell down, or when he carried a subtle limp to the bench after he was relieved for the final time in the fourth quarter — Smart delivered a historic performance and led the Celtics to a resounding 127-102 victory in Game 2. “Love and trust,” as they say.
“It was very frustrating because I couldn’t get out there and help my teammates. I had to sit there and watch us struggle the way we did. It was very painful,” Smart said of having to sit — well, stand, donning a fire fit that makes Ben Simmons look like a Walmart mannequin — through the Celtics’ Game 1 collapse. “For me today, it was come out and be as aggressive as you can and don’t let the same thing happen.”
Did Smart ever, to the reverberant tune of 24 points, a game-high 12 assists, nine rebounds, and three steals. He shot just 8-of-22 from the field, but drained five of his 12 three-point attempts (42 percent). He led all starters with a plus-31 net rating. And he became the only player in Boston Celtics’ history to score 20 points, dish out 10 dimes, and knock down five triples in the playoffs. All that while working on a bum foot, one that he admits is still sore, but not going to stop him from playing.
“I hoped I could get back,” Smart said after Game 2. “We didn’t want to risk it Game 1. But I told myself, ‘Game 2, you playin’. I don’t care how much you’re hurting.’”
He didn’t seem to be all that bothered by it. Perhaps he’s just an excellent actor, or better yet, one of the toughest players the Celtics franchise has ever seen (neither would be far off). But he was as impactful on both ends as he’s been in a long while on both ends, if not more so. It’d be silly to even note that he was missed in Game 1. If you showed a newborn baby — hey, maybe Derrick White’s newborn son Hendrix could be our testing subject! — Game 1 and Game 2 side-by-side and asked why the outcomes were so wildly different, its first word would be “Duh,” followed by “Smart didn’t play in Game 1, you fool.”
It’s his offensive impact that feels worthy to note first, given the fact that, maybe unfairly, it still fades into the background given his otherworldly defensive acumen. Despite the inconsistency he experienced early in his career — which still occasionally breaks through, albeit rarely — Smart has developed into a passer it would be fair to call borderline-elite. He has developed the ability to do exactly what every great floor general is supposed to do: predict their teammate’s movements, and find them in stride, or directly in their shooting pocket and motion. That is if the pass is setting up a spot-up shot and not a rim-run, both of which Smart is damn close to perfecting at this point in his point guard evolution.
“It feels great,” he said of the trust the team has put in him at the point guard position. “That’s who I am. The whole world is seeing what I can do at the point guard position.”
Included in that rip are leaning lasers to teammates you wouldn’t be able to tell Smart had a view of as he flew out of bounds; leading lobs that anticipate both the defense’s movement and his big man’s trajectory; quick decisions that fed fellow C’s in prime scoring positions; and savvy entry passes that float beyond the defense’s outstretched flails and into his target’s breadbasket, just to name a few. Smart’s twelve assists on Thursday were a postseason career-high and a number he only outdid once this season, when he recorded 13 helpers in Boston’s 28-point win over the Utah Jazz in late March. But this was arguably his most efficient night as a passer, even if it was boosted by some incredible shot-making from his teammates. In Game 2, the Celtics were 12-of-15 from the field and 6-of-8 from three off passes made by Smart, an absurd clip that few point guards tend to reach unless they’re feeding Bill Russell in the paint or Stephen Curry on a hand-off. And you mean to tell me the Celtics still need a “real floor general” in order to win? (You didn’t think we’d just let it go, did you?)
Then there was Smart’s scoring in Game 2, a menagerie of difficult finishes and heat-check jumpers that just kept on finding the bottom of the net. Despite the fact that his first made field goal came when there were just over two minutes remaining in the first quarter, and that he waited to make his second until there were just 30 seconds left in the half, Smart managed to finish with 24 points, tied with Jaylen Brown for the third-most in the game behind Jimmy Butler (29) and Jayson Tatum (27). Smart is hardly averse to letting it fly; frankly, he’s always a bit too liberal a shooter for this writer’s liking. But on nights when he’s feeling it — like, shimmying, crossover-ing, dropping Max Strus feeling it — what is there to complain about?
It’s much easier to love and trust Smart when it feels evident that he loves and trusts himself, especially as a creator. He’s at his best as a shooter when his decisions are made immediately upon the catch, not when he hesitates, takes a few dribbles, steps back, and then fires after 10-12 seconds have passed. He’s an adequate ballhandler, one who I’m sure surprises himself every once and a while, but there’s a difference between puttering around on the wing and dribbling with a move in mind. Smart is still improving as a blowby finisher, as well as a stepback shotmaker. But at the very least, those skills are permanently embedded in his repertoire. Because of that growth, at least in part, the Celtics are now 4-0 this postseason when Smart scores 20-plus points, and 6-0 when he takes more than 12 shots, per StatMuse.
Yet the foundation of his overall repertoire, of course, is the defense that awarded him this season’s Defensive Player of the Year honors, and tends to serve as the Celtics’ compass, despite his award largely being considered by the masses as more of a team award than one given to an individual. That might be because his numbers are a bit less tangible than Rudy Gobert’s or Jaren Jackson Jr.’s, or even Bam Adebayo’s. But he’s widely regarded as one of the league’s best on-ball defenders, and he showed exactly why he’s feared — and rewarded for his mastery — on Thursday.
His three steals are one plot point — one that inserted Smart into yet another chapter in the Celtics history books. But that he held the Heat to 3-of-11 and two turnovers when he was the primary defender is the story. In Game 1, Miami recorded just 12 turnovers, and after a mediocre start, finished the game with 49-33-88 shooting splits to their name. In Game 2, those splits dropped just enough, to 44-29-73. What was missing in Game 1? Ask the aforementioned baby.
Or ask Smart, who aptly deferred singular praise onto the team as a whole, particularly when it came to defending Jimmy Butler, Miami’s biggest offensive threat. “It wasn’t just me. I had some help from everybody. We all threw some guys at him, and we all had a chance. That’s what it comes down to,” Smart said. “My assignment was just to make everything tough for him. We knew he was going to hit some shots. If he did, he had to work for them. That’s just where I came in.”
Smart defended Butler on 35 plays in Game 2, and the Heat star managed just nine points, according to Second Spectrum. It’s safe to say Smart made Butler work for it, and then some.
For all of the ups and downs the Boston Celtics have experienced this season, there seems to be one trend that rises above it all: Marcus Smart is there for the rebound. He isn’t the team’s only barometer, nor its only compass; he can’t be, or else Boston might as well forfeit each game he has to miss. But he always seems to steady the ship.
“The beauty of this team is that we got to play through adversity this season,” he noted postgame, later adding, “We just wanted to come in and be the harder playing team tonight.”
Thanks primarily to the energy Smart provided, they were the harder playing team, and they are the better team. Monitoring and resting his foot will be crucial moving forward in this series and potentially beyond, but as long as he’s present, the Celtics are in better hands. With his team feeling the Heat, he returned and immediately served as a cooling agent, even as he caught fire on his own. I’m not sure how that works scientifically, but I also don’t care, as long as he keeps doing it.
And something about that late-game primal scream tells me he’s just getting started.