The longest tenured Celtic played a complete game, helping Boston to a Game 4 victory,
The notion of having Marcus Smart as the lead guard for the Boston Celtics has long been accepted and celebrated in most areas of the fan base. Boos and jeers have turned to smiles and cheers as the Celtics’ longest-tenured player continues to blossom in his new role of initiating the offense.
We didn’t get to see the best version of Smart in the Celtics’ Game 3 loss against Milwaukee, as he was still ramping up to full speed after missing Game 2 with a quad injury. But, as the Celtics fought back in a do-or-die contest on Monday night, the “Wolverine” was back to his usual best, as he sliced open the Bucks defense time and time again with his impressive penetration game.
Watching Smart orchestrate Ime Udoka’s offensive gameplan has become a normality for Celtics fans, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t embrace his growth in that area of the floor. So far in the playoffs, only Smart and Luka Doncic sit within the NBA’S top-10 for total assists in the postseason while playing fewer than eight games.
Smart ended Game 4 with 8 assists to his name, as he continually exploited the shooting gravity of his teammates to find open shooters and created defensive panic with his rim pressure when beating guys off the dribble.
We can see how Smart puts the ball on the floor to attack Grayson Allen and gets his man airborne with a nifty shot fake after spinning off his defender. Smart then sells a second shot fake to re-engage the defense, most notably Giannis Antetokounmpo, before finding Al Horford open at the free throw line for an easy catch-and-shoot opportunity.
Smart doesn’t make that pass in previous seasons because he doesn’t drive the close-out; just 18 months ago, that play would have ended as soon as the ball touched his hands in the corner. Things change, though, and Smart has developed into a cerebral initiator, which allowed Boston to finally get some success inside of the three-point line in Game 4.
“For us, it was just keep attacking. If we’re going to lose this game, at least we’re going to go out fighting. And that’s us attacking, putting pressure on the rim, putting pressure on them to make the plays, and then we’re finding the right guy. And for me, I’m 6’4’’, I’m a strong guy, and Jayson’s 6’9’. We just shoot over guys a lot of the time with our matchups. It was just putting our head down, putting pressure on the rim on the guys, and then making the right read,” Smart told reporters following his impressive Game 4 performance.
Like most of his teammates, Smart came alive during the fourth quarter, as the Celtics took the lead and began to put some daylight between themselves and Milwaukee. Of his 18 points on the night, 9 of them came in the final 11 minutes of the game, one of them being a three and the others being hard-earned two’s against stern defensive opposition.
It’s easy to forget how strong Smart is for a player of his size and at his position, but he is a legitimate combo guard, and by placing him in the starting point guard role, the Celtics consistently have a size and strength advantage at that position. Just take the above possession; for example, Jrue Holiday is one of the better defensive guards in the NBA, and yet Smart backs him down and finishes through contact against him in the clutch.
You can see that Smart lowers his base before turning into Holiday, so to get more explosion on his burst towards the rim and mitigate any defensive pushback Holiday tries to put forward, making use of his size and strength to finish strong and extend the Celtics’ lead.
“Marcus was instrumental for us. He just kept talking to us in the huddles, telling us to stay with it. I was extremely proud of him. He showed tonight why he was the Defensive Player of the Year. Just the number that he did in guarding Giannis, guarding Jrue, just taking the challenge, and I think he was unreal. I don’t think people are talking about that enough, but for me, that was the game-changer. He was unbelievable defensively,” Horford said of Smart following his exceptional performance.
It’s hard to be impressed by Smart’s defensive antics; after all, it’s what we’ve come to expect from the first guard to win the Defensive Player of the Year award since Gary Payton. But in Game 4, the battle-tested guard went to war and consistently found himself guarding multiple positions.
The signs were there from the Celtics opening defensive possession, as Smart found himself in drop coverage, tasked with contesting a Giannis drive. Smart stands tall, absorbs the contact, and gets the strip, all against a player many are dubbing the “modern-day Shaquille O’Neal” due to his physical dominance.
Still, it pales in comparison to the work the veteran guard put in down the stretch, especially when positioned around the nail to limit penetration.
Here is another fine example of how Smart stepped up in a big moment to guard one of the best forwards in the world and managed to contain him in the paint, forcing a missed shot from a difficult look. There are not many guards in NBA history that can defend up positions like Smart, especially ones that can also have such a tangible impact on the offensive side of the floor.
Smart’s presence also helped ease the pressure on Ime Udoka when Jaylen Brown got into foul trouble. With the bulldog point guard on the floor, the Celtics were able to remain competitive despite one of their star wings being limited for minutes. Even with Grant Williams and Daniel Theis both off the floor as Boston went small, Udoka was comfortable trusting Smart and White on the perimeter due to their versatility, strength, and defensive upside.
So, while Al Horford and Jayson Tatum deservedly receive most of the praise for the Celtics’ performance in game 4, Smart’s fingerprints are firmly implanted throughout the game, and the teams victory wouldn’t have been possible without his contributions – both what showed up in the box score, and the what didn’t.