MILWAUKEE — One 30-second stretch in the Celtics’ 96-93 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night illustrated the mercurial nature of Marcus Smart’s rookie season.
With nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Smart drove on veteran guard Jerryd Bayless and attempted a behind-the-back dribble at the wrong time, allowing Bayless to knock the ball away easily. Smart flailed his arms and tumbled to the ground and wondered why no foul had been called. It was an example of his physicality and determination juxtaposed against the reality that he is not in college anymore.
Bayless pumped his fist and watched as the Bucks soared the other way for an O.J. Mayo dunk. It was not Smart’s finest moment, but redemption came quickly.
On the Celtics’ next possession, he made a strong drive on Mayo. Bayless came over to help as Smart neared the basket, but it didn’t matter. Smart absorbed contact and converted an off-balance 5-footer as he was fouled.
Smart has taken on an increased role since the December trade of Rajon Rondo, and it has escalated considerably of late, with Smart averaging 37.8 minutes over the last four games. He is at once the team’s point guard of the future and the present.
Smart knows he is at his best when he is making those strong, physical drives to the basket with his 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound frame. But he also knows those moments haven’t come as frequently as he had expected.
“I’ve just got to attack,” Smart said. “I’ve just got to be more aggressive. I’m not as aggressive as I was at Oklahoma State, and that’s all it is. You know, I turned down a lot of drives and a lot of shots, to be honest. That’s different than what I was at Oklahoma State.”
It is worth noting that the NBA is far different than Oklahoma State, so some of Smart’s adjustments are necessary. Gritting your teeth and plowing forward against physically overmatched players might work against the Oklahoma Sooners; it usually will not work against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
And perhaps that has Smart playing tentatively. Since Jan. 28, 30 of his 48 field goal attempts have been 3-pointers, a high figure for a player who is not known for his long-range shooting.
Smart’s free throw rate — the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt — is .269. During his sophomore year at Oklahoma State, that figure was .648. And this season the free throw rates of elite NBA guards Russell Westbrook, Ty Lawson, and Eric Bledsoe are all above .4.
But Celtics coach Brad Stevens stressed that it would be a mistake to expect Smart to just whirl through the lane and draw one foul after another. First, Stevens said, it is important for Smart to take what a defense allows. Second, he understands that Smart’s development remains in the early stages.
“In an ideal world, yeah, be able to drive by your guy every time and get to the line,” Stevens said. “But you know, he’s not there yet. And he got to the line a lot in college. I think he’ll continue to get to the line more and more as he gets comfortable reading defenses. But again, this is a lot less about downhill speed and a lot more about he has to learn defenses.”
Smart has taken 15 free throws over the Celtics’ last four games, his most in any four-game stretch this season. He said that he will seek to be more aggressive. Stevens just does not want those moments to feel forced.
“Marcus’s ability as a driver and off the pick and roll is a little bit unique to, let’s say [Hawks guard] Jeff Teague, who just flies at you downhill — that’s not him,” Stevens said. “He’s got more of that physical body that can keep people on his side and his hip and his back. And then he can use some of his tricks and his ballhandling and those type of things to get to where he wants to go. Some of that he has, and some of that he needs to continuously develop and work on. And that takes a little bit of time.”