It seems like it’s the most appropriate time for Marcus Smart, the Celtics’ most polarizing player, to prove his worth to the organization.
Less than two weeks before the NBA trade deadline, Smart has yet to completely prove he’s capable of being a frontline point guard for a playoff contender — until he gave glimpses of that in the past few games.
Smart has returned from a quadriceps injury and COVID-19 protocol to play some of the best basketball of his career, at a time when president of basketball operations Brad Stevens is determining whether to make significant changes to a roster that’s underachieved all season.
In four games since his return, Smart has been a plus-36, plus-36, minus-7 and plus-30, and not surprisingly, the Celtics have won those three games where Smart has been a plus rather easily.
And he has embraced two major components to make the Celtics successful: distributing the ball rather than shooting, and pushing the pace so the Celtics can score easier.
Celtics coach Ime Udoka has implored Smart to push the ball up the floor, even on made baskets, so primary scorers Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have a chance to score against scrambling defenses that aren’t set.
For years, Smart has never really had a true position. During his career, he’s been a combo guard, point guard, and shooting guard, and even small-ball big (remember him guarding 7-foot-3-inch Kristaps Porzingis?). .
When Udoka took the job in June, he named Smart his starting point guard, tasking him with taking over for Kemba Walker.
Smart has made a more concerted effort this season at being a floor leader instead of an indiscriminate chucker of 3-pointers. While there have been games where he gets carried away trying to be a scorer, Smart has focused on getting the ball to Tatum and Brown.
“The pace, our pace,” Smart said. “We can get down and get a lot more easier shots for those guys. When they’re out in transition, it’s tough to guard them. It’s tough for teams to load up. It’s tough for teams to trap. It’s tough for teams to double, to send extra guys at them when we get out in transition.
“That was probably one of our points of emphasis was pace. Just trying to keep that pace up. My job is just to get them as easy of shots as possible. I’m constantly challenging them to run with me, whenever I have the ball.”
What makes the Celtics a better offense is Tatum and Brown getting easy baskets early and in an up-tempo offense. Smart said he’s been encouraging both All-Stars to race up the floor, even on opponent’s made baskets.
“They do a good job of, if I’m taking off, getting the ball to me because they know I’m going to give the ball back to them,” Smart said. “If we can get those easier shots, especially early on in the game, those harder shots come a lot easier in the fourth quarter after that. You see it when they get those easier shots and they get that rhythm [and] they exploit.”
Udoka said earlier this week he’s challenged Smart to efficiently run an offense that’s been erratic at times this season. Smart’s biggest emphasis is pushing the ball, not allowing defenses to get set by walking the ball up the floor.
“Ime is really big on it,” Smart said. “He wants us to play fast. He wants us to get down the floor, because he knows the potential that we have, especially with those two guys we have on that wing and the talent that they have in the open court. Getting those guys in the open court to let them be great is only going to help us.”
Smart signed a contract extension through 2025-26 in the offseason. And yet, he, along with Dennis Schröder, has been frequently mentioned in trade talks. Such talk, however, would likely have been muted if the Celtics were off to a better start than 26-25, leaving them 31 games to make a run at a favorable playoff spot.
With the first-place Miami Heat coming to TD Garden on Monday, the Celtics, who are now as healthy and whole as they’ve been all season, face a sense of urgency to reach their full potential prior to the trade deadline.
“We’ve been undersold all season,” Smart said. “We know it. We’re still out there trying to fight. It’s not easy for us individually, collectively. We definitely have to start progress in the right way. We can’t win a game, lose a game; win two, lose two. We have to start showing consistency. It’s not easy, especially with this year, new concept, new coach, just trying to get used to everybody.
“It’s not an excuse. We don’t want to make excuses. We want to own up and take responsibility. We’ve just got to keep going. [We] can’t quit and that’s what matters. I’ve said it before: What we are going to do when we get knocked down? As long as we keep pushing, I think things will even themselves out for us and we’ll get on a run here.”
This is a critical time for the Celtics. Thankfully for them, no team in the Eastern Conference has run away with it. The teams are all bunched up, so much so the Celtics have a shot at home-court advantage in the first round. Or they could finish out of the tournament altogether. Smart said he’s determined to push the Celtics back to being a contender this season.
“What a better way to go out there and show everybody that’s praying you fail or expecting you to fail,” he said. “Don’t think you’re going to succeed by doing exactly what they wanted you to do.
“Personally, I try to look at it as motivation and I try to encourage my team to look at it that way. Block it out and go out there and prove them wrong.”