The Celtics opted to not elect captains this season, but Smart has emerged as one of its guiding voices.
The NBA dictionary is a vast menagerie of definitions, those of people, places, things, actions, etc. Most, if not all of those things have concrete definitions, even if they feel indefinable to the everyday being. More often than not, those things aren’t necessarily indefinable, but instead, you simply know it when you see it.
marc•us smart game
/märk,əs smärt ɡām/
noun: Marcus Smart game; plural noun: Marcus Smart games
1. a form of play or sport, primarily in basketball, often characterized by unbridled, borderline-chaotic energy. it probably shouldn’t work, and yet it impacts the entire flow of the game for the better, resulting in something wholly beautiful
But again, even despite there being a definition for this sort of game, it’s something you can only really know is happening as you watch it unfold. Last night’s 130-108 Celtics win over the Los Angeles Lakers? A Marcus Smart game, one in which he scored a season-high 22 points on a season-best 69 percent (!!) shooting from the field, while also tallying eight rebounds (three offensive), six assists, and a steal for good measure. To absolutely no one’s surprise, he was a pest on defense (Dennis Schröder aptly called Smart “a dog” postgame) and the bellwether for the Celtics’ best full-game effort of the season.
“We’re not perfect,” Smart said after the dominant victory, “but the fight is in us. It might not look like it right now, but we’re gonna turn things around.”
Last night, it certainly looked like things were actively turning around for a Boston team that, so far this season — and, if we’re being honest, much of the last few seasons — seemed incapable of putting a complete game together. After trailing by as much as 14 during an opening quarter in which they gave up 38 points to their visiting rivals, the Celtics turned a once-questionable affair into a resounding blowout. They led by as many as 25 in a game that felt, for once, like this team might be showing signs of being greater than the sum of its parts.
“We can’t get too high on the highs, too low on the lows,” Smart said. “Once you put your head down and you show that you’re defeated, that’s when a team like that smells blood… for us, [we] just [have to] keep going. If they make a shot, we go right back at them.”
Oftentimes when those situations did arise, it was Smart leading the charge. Players, coaches, and fans alike know that if this Boston team has one constant, it’s Smart’s energy. Whether he’s making shots or not is a bit more of a variable. For both to be present on the same night, particularly against an opponent who, on paper, is a formidable foe, isn’t just instrumental. It’s game-altering.
“My mindset was that I didn’t want us to go into our old habits of just settling, trying to get it back in one possession,” Smart noted postgame, touching on a dependence that this Celtics team has fallen back on far too often this season, but finally seemed to shake last night. “Just trying to attack the rim, find the right plays for myself and for other guys, and that’s what we’ve been missing a lot of this year. When we get down like that against a good team, we tend to relax and go the easy route and try to shoot our way out of it.”
Shooting your way out of it is a messy stratagem, but not an entirely fallible one when you’re… you know, making shots. But shots are often easiest to make when taken in close, and the Celtics found success like they haven’t all season in that regard. Boston outscored Los Angeles 56-36 in the paint, shattering their season average of 45.6 per game in that area of the floor, and somewhat uncharacteristically, Smart was its most active visitor. He finished 7-of-8 (88 percent) in the painted area, his finishing abilities on full display with a shocking degree of patience proving even more prevalent.
He wasn’t alone. Dennis Schröder, Smart’s backcourt-mate while Jaylen Brown remains out with a hamstring injury, finished 5-of-6 in close (83.3 percent). The duo combined for 24 of those 56 paint points, a welcome offensive burst considering the team was missing Brown, its second-most prolific scorer, and Robert Williams III, its strongest paint presence on either end. Smart and Schroder also combined for 12 assists, not all of which came from inside, but all of which the Celtics needed. Boston is 21st in the NBA in assists per game at 22.6; their players, particularly Tatum and Schröder, are often guilty of trying to create far too much on their own. To have help and to take advantage of it from Smart and Schröder is a welcome sight, one that the team likely hopes will persist.
When asked about how dangerous that duo can be when attacking the rim like they did against the Lakers, Smart noted that he and Schröder can be “as dangerous as we want it to be. Dennis has been a great addition to this team on that aspect of the floor, just being able to create for others and allowing me to create it for others as well. When we’re rolling like that, it gives that extra energy to everybody else to get into a rhythm, and I think we saw that tonight.”
Jayson Tatum, who scored a game-high 37 points, agreed, noting that the aggressive play of Smart and Schröder “opens the game up. Those two guys are so crafty and shifty getting downhill, finishing at the rim, finding guys on sickouts. It opens things up. It’s hard to stay in front of those guys, how quick they are.”
At times, Smart’s literal impact can come in waves, but what’s important is that as an idea, its presence is constant. He’s this team’s ticker; without him, it can far-too-often lack the necessary vivacity great teams possess. No one — least of all, Smart — is naive to the fact that this season has hardly yet been the rebound these Celtics hoped for following last year’s up-and-down campaign. But their recent efforts, with last night’s win feeling like a high point, have felt like an indication that the ship is being righted.
“Things aren’t going to go as perfectly as planned,” Smart said. “But it’s what you do when things go the way that you don’t think they should go, and how you react to it. I think we reacted very well. We had some turmoil early on, and that’s part of it. Just trying to get a way to get each other going. We’re doing it, it’s coming along. Obviously, we still have a lot of work to do, but we’re on the right path.”