As the Boston Celtics blew by their Eastern Conference foes the Cleveland Cavaliers last Wednesday night, most of the talk was centered around Isaiah Thomas and his return to TD Garden. It was the point guard’s first appearance in Boston since the summer blockbuster trade, one which brought about mixed feelings from all parties involved. Despite the fanfare surrounding how the home crowd would react to their former favourite, the Celtics refused to allow any distractions and eased to a comfortable 102-88 victory behind vital contributions from Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart.
It was a typical night for Smart in this his fourth NBA season. As he poured in 15 points and collected 4 rebounds and assists, his compatriot from the bench, Rozier, scored a game-high 20 points en route to a memorable night for the Louisville alum. If the media weren’t making a fuss over every one of Thomas’ movement on the bench, they were gushing over Rozier’s big night. There was barely a mention of Smart’s excellent play; it’s what we’ve become accustomed to from the 23-year-old.
In the midst of what was a busy and exciting summer for the Celtics was a looming contract extension for Smart that never happened. Reports suggest that the front office offered up to 4 years and somewhere between$40-50M but Smart and his representatives turned it down, opting to test the free agency market this year instead. Whether or not that decision pays off remains to be seen. However, when you look at contracts from the last couple of years it may well have been worth the risk, especially considering that Marcus’s versatility can put him on more teams’ shopping lists than a traditional point guard.
Entering a bidding war is never good for a team, especially when the large contracts of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford will likely hamper the Celtics offers. Despite the star-studded talent on Boston’s roster, they can ill-afford to let a player like Smart depart. While his efforts on court rarely show up on the stat sheet, Smart is arguably one of the more valuable players Brad Stevens has at his disposal. Even looking at his performance against the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday night is enough to show just how important he is to the side.
Smart was disruptive on the defensive end all night. He was continuously chasing passes, switching well on pick & rolls, and fighting for loose balls. According to NBA.com, he had a defensive rating of 71.6 while holding opponents to just 33% field goal shooting. There was a lack of conviction on the offensive end, as there often is for Smart, but there is no doubting his continued evolution as an influential leader on defense.
A few nights prior, the Cavaliers that Smart was defending shot 38% and they turned it over on 17% of possessions while he was on the floor. He was able to disrupt anything the opposition were attempting, and against one of the league’s top offenses. They were unable to find any flow and quickly fell behind to a large lead. In the same way the Celtics were able to mount a 26 point comeback versus Houston last month, it was their defense which controlled the contest.
Ask James Harden how he feels about Smart’s suffocating style of physical defense. Although the leading images from that match were the charges which Smart took late in the fourth quarter, it was Harden’s building frustration which caused him to boil over and commit the game-deciding fouls. Allowing Harden to find any momentum is always dangerous; Smart ensured the Rockets guard was going to have to earn every point. That led to The Beard posting his worst shooting performance of the year, scoring on just 7 of 27 field goal attempts. There aren’t many players out there who can control a perennial MVP candidate the way Smart was able to, which makes him all the more indispensable to the Celtics.
The last couple of weeks have just been an example of Smart’s influence throughout the campaign. When Boston’s most-renowned defenders in Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder left in the summer, there were doubts raised over whether or not the Celtics could recover from losing such key players. Smart was not only willing to step up to the challenge but, surrounded by youngsters such as Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the now long-serving Celtic has led the new-look defense to being the best in the league. Despite his notable offensive struggles, the Celtics are 7.3 points better when Smart is on the court than when he is off it, according to basketball-reference. Even when it comes to his weaknesses, Smart is still able to make those around him better.
That trend should continue, since Boston are slated to play far less games with more rest days for the remainder of the regular season. Smart, having bet on himself for the year, is proving he made the right decision when Ainge & Co. came calling with their contract offer last year. He’s constantly been excellent on defense while he and Rozier are quietly starting to push the Celtics bench unit into a top all-around group. They’re already the best defensive unit in the league.
From defending the league’s best to quarterbacking a bench unit, from being a part of the league’s finest team defense to slowly improving his shooting numbers, Marcus Smart will have a lot of merits to point to when he sits down with suitors this summer.