After the Celtics walloped the Pacers, 120-95, on Friday night, coach Joe Mazzulla was asked about Derrick White’s latest sterling performance. The guard, who has remained in the starting lineup despite center Robert Williams’s return from a hamstring injury, had 22 points, 9 rebounds, and 0 turnovers.
Mazzulla has praised White plenty, and the coach acknowledged recently that he probably erred by not using him more during defining moments. But in this case, Mazzulla took the opportunity to shift the credit to another valuable guard, Marcus Smart.
“I think [White’s success] goes back to the way Smart pushes the pace,” Mazzulla said. “When Smart gets out in early transition and forces cross-matches, it really gets us going. So I think it starts with him and getting us organized.”
Smart, the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, has fully established his value at that end of the court over the years. But his offensive role tends to be more complicated.
Although he has emerged as an excellent conductor and proudly points out that after playing alongside All-Star point guards such as Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, and Kemba Walker, he was the first to lead this Celtics group to the NBA Finals. But he is also still known for his sometimes spotty shot selection and inconsistent 3-pointers.
Smart is generally at his best on offense when he is guiding his teammates rather than trying to carry them. And in the Celtics’ last two lopsided wins, over the Kings and Pacers — two of the more impressive performances of this season — Smart has been a quiet, essential piece. He has registered 12 assists and one turnover, and on Friday night he attempted just three shots, including one 3-pointer.
“But his potential assists and what he did to get us in early offense is not on the stat sheet,” Mazzulla said. “And you know when Derrick is that aggressive because of those things, it’s just, we’re a different team.”
This season, Smart has attempted 6.2 3-pointers per game and made 27.3 percent in losses, and he has attempted 5.1 per game and connected on 36.3 percent in wins. Also, he has a 2.9-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in wins, and 2.3-to-1 in losses. His play is a true barometer of this team’s success, and the Celtics are aware.
“Smart is always trying to find guys, find his teammates, get guys open, get them going,” forward Jayson Tatum said. “So if you’re looking or not, if you’re going to be there or not, he’s going to throw it. We all know when Smart has the ball, keep your head on a swivel, run, and he’s going to find you. He’s trying to pass first, and when he’s pushing the ball, we’ve all got to follow suit.”
Mazzulla had little warning before being installed as interim head coach in September following the suspension of Ime Udoka. The Celtics hardly missed a beat at the beginning of the season, roaring to the top of the NBA.
Despite some recent hiccups, they still own the league’s second-best record at 51-23. Mazzulla, who was named the full-time coach after the Celtics officially parted ways with Udoka last month, has acknowledged that there have been challenges along the way, but he believes he has made progress.
“I think just learning and growing, just working through the mistakes you made or through the learning experiences,” he said. “Just navigating a long season, and there’s not a right answer to it. You’ve just got to, as you go, figure out some things and tweak some things and stick to the things you think are important.”
The two blowout wins have vaulted the Celtics back to the top of the NBA in net rating. They are now outscoring opponents by 6 points per 100 possessions, 0.3 points better than the second-place Cavaliers.
The Celtics’ 117 offensive rating and 111 defensive rating each rank fourth in the league. No other team is in the top five in both categories.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.