The Boston Celtics Have Become Soft without Marcus Smart in the Lineup
When Marcus Smart injured his hand punching glass in his hotel room in Los Angeles on January 23rd, it finally gave everyone a chance to answer the question that has been plaguing fans of the Boston Celtics and the NBA for years; “how valuable is Marcus Smart?” There may not be a more enigmatic player in the entire league. Marcus Smart takes some frustratingly stupid shots… but he can also go for 8-for-14 and 7-for-10 from three while single-handedly winning you a playoff game against LeBron. Marcus Smart is a career 35% shooter, and 30% from three-point range, but is also one of the best defenders in the league, and can rattle James Harden into a pair of stupid offensive fouls to win a game for the Celtics. The bottom line is, Marcus Smart might not seem like it, but he has a knack for doing the little things that win you games. So are the Celtics better or worse without him in the lineup?
Advanced metrics do not seem to know what to do with the guy. Does his bad shot selection lose his team games, or does his hustle and defense override that negative and win you games? The answer is yes to all of that. In the 2017 playoffs there was a perfect corollary between games when Marcus Smart was a minus player and games when he a positive player. If he was a positive (nine times), the Celtics won. If he was a negative (nine times), the Celtics lost (see table). However Marcus Smart went, so too did the Boston Celtics. It almost defies logic, but Marcus Smart might be the most important player on the Boston Celtics when you look at the statistic that matters most; wins and losses. The injury to smart has provided a clear case study; with Smart out a couple of weeks, how would the Boston Celtics play without their glue guy? Our answer; they are falling apart.
The Boston Celtics are the best defensive team in the league. At least that was the case before this recent run of play without Smart. Entering the game against the Cavaliers on Sunday, the Celtics were holding teams to 98 points per game. The Cavaliers, who have been a dumpster fire of used baby diapers for most of the past month-and-a-half, torched the Celtics to the tune of 121 points. With Smart out of the lineup, the Celtics have given up 100 or more points in seven of their last 10 games.
Worse, it is at the exact spot where Smart would normally be playing defense. Smart, who uses his size and strength better than almost any guard in the league, has always bothered Stephen Curry… Curry went for 49 points on 16-for-24 shooting, 8-for-13 from three and looked comfortable the entire night. When the Toronto Raptors steamrolled the Celtics, Kyle Lowry had his way with an easy 23 (6-for-13/6-for-11 3 PT) and C.J. Miles rattled home 20 points on just eight shots (six makes) including five three-pointers (on seven attempts).
The Celtics all of a sudden cannot guard the perimeter against the better teams in the league, and it is no surprise this is happening in the absence of Marcus Smart. Worse yet though, there is a noticeable lack of fight from the Celtics. They are getting shoved around and “out-toughed” (as Brian Scalabrine put it) without the presence of Marcus Smart. They are losing the 50-50 battles with loose balls. Their rebounding (never a strong suit) has been almost non-existent, with two Jeff Green tip-ins against the Cavaliers being the most glaring “what the hell is going on moments,” because he was the only Cav in the paint and still somehow got the tip-ins.
There have been two main camps when it comes to the Celtics backup guards. Team Rozier and Team Smart. When Terry Rozier threw up a triple-double against the pathetic Knicks in his first career start (due to the absence of both Smart and Kyrie Irving), the Team Rozier fans rightly stuck their noses up at the Team Smart people. When he followed that up with a career-high 31 against the Hawks, Team Rozier fans popped champagne and joined the Anti-Smart crowd in helping to buy a plane ticket for Smart out of town. However, with the Celtics playing higher-quality opponents in their last four games, the Celtics have gone 1-3… and have looked soft while doing so.
Lowry did whatever he wanted in the Raptors win. In the Celtics lone victory against the Wizards, the Celtics needed two separate idiotic three-point fouls to send the game to overtime. Victor Oladipo was the best player on the court when he poured in 35 in a Pacers’ 97-91 win, taking advantage of not having to contend with the stellar defense of Smart. And in the Cavs game, everyone in a dark jersey got to where they wanted with ease, rarely fearful of any retribution. There was no fight from the Celtics, whether literal or metaphorical. If there is one thing that Marcus Smart does better than anybody else on the Celtics team, it is playing tough defense and fighting for every possession; the Celtics gave up on multiple possessions throughout the game… something foreign to any Celtics game featuring Marcus Smart.
Smart does not get off scot-free here; he is the one that got so upset (at something…) that he punched a pane of glass in anger. That is part of the package with Marcus Smart. He plays with his heart on his sleeve, his emotions pouring out of him like sweat in the fourth. However, he is a glue-guy. The guy that does the intangibles that seemingly always pop up late in the fourth-quarter in one possession game. The one person on the team you cannot do without, and the one guy you take for granted… until you no longer have him. The last two weeks without Smart the Celtics have gone 6-4, but they have looked awful while doing so (and losers of three of their last four). This is a team right now that is seemingly going through the motions; something that Marcus Smart has never done on a basketball. Many people in Boston and New England are currently wondering what is wrong with this Celtics team. The answer is simple; there is no Marcus Smart, and without Marcus Smart, they do not have a heart.