LOS ANGELES — It’s difficult to view the positives when the NBA franchise with the most championships and whose fanbase still travels well — most recently exemplified by the large contingent Monday at Staples Center for the loss to the Clippers — is playing .333 ball.
The Celtics are 13-26 entering Thursday’s matchup in Portland, having lost 12 of 16 games since trading Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks. And while Boston went into Tuesday’s play just three games back of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, it’s likely the Celtics are headed for a second consecutive draft lottery and another premium draft pick.
Team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge stresses the importance of attracting a high-caliber, established player to foster the team’s resurgence, and the development of 20-year-old rookie Marcus Smart has taken a splendidly positive turn after a rough, injury-filled beginning.
Smart’s numbers are modest — he is eighth among NBA rookies in minutes per game at 22.0, nearly 11 less than leading Rookie of the Year candidate Andrew Wiggins — but his improvement over the past several weeks has been the most impressive aspect of what is becoming another forgettable season in Boston.
A player who was tabbed as a defense-first strongman with shooting deficiencies is turning into a dependable 3-point shooter. After missing 19 of his first 28 3-pointers this season — in addition to all eight of his attempts in his one-game NBADL stint — Smart is 29 for his past 68 from beyond the arc, a sparkling 42.7 percent.
For nearly the past decade, the Celtics dealt with a skilled point guard in Rondo who was brilliant with the pass but unable to stretch the floor because of his erratic jump shot. What’s more, Smart’s 35 3-pointers are nine more than Rondo converted in any one season.
Entering Tuesday’s games, Rondo made just 118 3-pointers in his entire career (541 games). The Celtics believed for a while they may have the same issues transforming Smart into a dependable outside shooter, but those concerns have dissipated.
“Marcus is probably playing as well in his role as he has all year,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “He’s been in a lot of games at the end, especially games he’s playing well. He would probably say that he’s worked more deliberately and consistently than ever before. That’s obviously an emphasis, we talked about it at the beginning of the year. We thought coming in his shot was better than his percentages and we continue to think he’ll make shots. Balance is a big deal and shot selection in a big deal.”
Smart and Stevens have attributed better decision-making as a reason for his shooting ascension. A low point for Smart this season occurred in the second overtime of the Celtics’ loss to the Wizards on Dec. 8, following a Celtics timeout with Boston leading, 132-130, with 52.8 seconds left.
Just two seconds after the inbounds pass, Smart launched an ill-advised 26-footer that clanged off the rim and 20 feet away from the basket, allowing Bradley Beal to feed John Wall, who raced to the basket to complete a go-ahead 3-point play.
“I think it’s gotta be a collaborative effort,” Stevens said about shot selection. “I thought he was in position last year where [at Oklahoma State] he had to take a lot of tough shots because he had the ball late in the clock, so that’s going to drive your percentages down.
“He’s also in the position where he had a competitive nature about him and he’s going to press sometimes. At this level, you don’t need to press quite as much because of the talent around you and I think that’s something that he’s learning.
“His greatest strength is he wants to win. He wants to compete. He has that little extra drive that creates a bad shot or two, but that’s OK.”
That competitive nature is what has convinced the organization that Smart will be the team’s eventual leader. On Monday, he faced up defensively against Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford, who Smart said was one of his boyhood idols.
“Both of them are very crafty with the ball, they’re like magicians,” he said. “So you couldn’t gamble, you have to play them solid.
“It was a great feeling to be out there with those guys. It’s a drive that as a competitor, you wake up to play every day. To go out there and play against one of the best players in the game, it’s you and him. And to be able to stop them and see what you’ve got is a good feeling.”
What has the organization thrilled about Smart’s potential is that competitiveness. Despite being a rookie, he has no intention of relenting to more talented or more savvy players.
The only thing separating Smart from being the leader of this new generation of Celtics is experience.
And his performances over the past five weeks have provided at least a glimmer of optimism that these dark days in Boston will eventually end and Smart will be the catalyst in the revival.