MINNEAPOLIS — Last season was a validation for Marcus Smart. After years of scraping and clawing, he was named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, the first guard to win the award since Gary Payton in 1996.
Smart was the backbone of a top-ranked defense that helped the Celtics come within two wins of an NBA title, and this year he was eager to do even more at that end of the court. But he acknowledged Wednesday that it has been challenging.
When asked to assess his own defensive performance, Smart said, “It’s mediocre. We all see it. I see it. It’s tough.”
With Smart on the court this year, the Celtics are surrendering 112.5 points per 100 possessions, the worst defensive rating on the team. Their defense has actually been 4.9 points per 100 possessions better with Smart on the bench. These numbers can be slightly wonky because the other four players on the court have an impact, too, but they support Smart’s own critique.
Smart attributed his slippage to a nagging ankle injury as well as rules and calls that he believes continue to favor offensive players.
“You don’t get the same calls as you probably would,” he said. “That makes it tough for you as a defender, especially with the league that is very, very highly offensively oriented, where everything is catered to the offensive player.
“It’s hard to play defense, especially coming off a DPOY. That’s even harder. Everything you do is more critiqued, especially when you’re in a [league] where there’s really no advantage for you as a defender.
“It’s tough, but you’ve just got to keep going. But, it’s mediocre for me.”
Smart said offensive players sometimes plow through him with no recourse. But if he puts a hand on the offensive player, a whistle is blown. Smart has developed a reputation for flopping on defense, and he acknowledged that sometimes he feels he has no other choice.
“It comes to the flopping aspect on the defensive end where you’ve got to sell it,” he said. “Just like an offensive player who’s trying to sell a call on offense, you’re trying to sell it on defense, because even more on the defensive end, you have no advantage. Everything’s to the offensive guy. So you have to even it out by trying to initiate calls by showing and over-exaggerating a little bit.”
Smart said his ankle injury has affected his lateral movement and general explosiveness. Injuries also have limited center Robert Williams, a second-team All-Defense pick last year, to 28 games, putting extra strain on Smart and the others.
“I think he covered up a lot for us, just like any big does,” Smart said. “As guards, we do everything on the perimeter to prevent guys from getting in the paint. But they tend to get in the paint sometimes, and that’s where having a guy back there to protect you helps.”
Williams near return
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said that Williams, who has been sidelined since straining his hamstring in Boston’s March 3 loss to the Nets, went through an extensive workout Tuesday and will likely return “sometime within the next week or so.”
The Celtics initially expected Williams to be sidelined for 7-10 days, but it appears this could be closer to a three-week absence.
“He responded well to the workout yesterday.” Mazzulla said.
Guard Payton Pritchard, who has been out since injuring his heel in the March 6 loss to the Cavaliers, has rejoined the team on this road trip but has yet to resume basketball activities.
Celtics forward Grant Williams’s role has been reduced considerably since the All-Star break. He sat out two games despite being healthy, and has averaged 18.6 minutes per game in the others, down from 27.8 before the break.
Forward Jayson Tatum said the others continue to try to keep him engaged.
“Just stay ready,” Tatum said. “The season is long. Ultimately we know we need Grant to accomplish our goal. And just stay ready. We’re all here for him and we’re all in this together. And when his number’s called, be ready to go out there and produce.”