The Boston Celtics have quickly turned the trajectory of their season around.
Just a few weeks ago, it seemed like it would have taken a miracle for the C’s to avoid the Play-In Tournament. Now, they are looking like a team that’s capable of making a run for one of the top seeds in the Eastern Conference over the final stretch of the season.
It’s been a long time coming, as the Celtics and their fans have endured a painful year and a half stretch of mediocre basketball. They have finally broken that trend it appears, as they’ve gone 17-8 since the calendar flipped to 2022, including a nine game win streak that was ended by the Detroit Pistons right before the All-Star break.
One thing that was missing in that game that was present throughout the win streak was Marcus Smart. During Boston’s recent run of success, Smart has gone from being a borderline trade candidate to a player that the team cannot live without (they are 3-7 when he’s inactive this season). Smart has long divided opinion in Boston, but it seems like he’s found his role, and the C’s are going to need him if they want to make a run in the East to close out the season.
The Boston Celtics have come to rely on Marcus Smart, and now they need him to succeed
I won’t hide from the fact I have been very critical of Smart over the past couple of months, and I was personally in favor of him getting moved at the Trade Deadline. I didn’t like his contract extension last offseason, I didn’t like him being appointed as the team’s starting point guard, and I certainly didn’t like his play for the first half of the season.
In order for it to all work, Smart was going to have to change his style as a volume shooter with low efficiency into a pass first guard who let his shots come to him rather than actively seeking them out. There wasn’t really anything that suggested he was capable of that throughout his career, and for the start of the season, he pretty much stayed the same.
Ever since Smart came back from a six game absence due to COVID, he has been a different player. He’s reduced the number of ridiculous shots he takes (particularly from behind the arc) and focused on moving the ball more. His assist numbers have jumped up as a result, and his efficiency has increased due to his lower shot volume.
I wrote during the Boston Celtics win streak that a simple tweak in Smart’s offensive game could really get things going, and so far that’s proved to be accurate. Smart is a solid finisher at the rim, and when he doesn’t waste his time firing up absurd three pointers all game long, he can be a weapon in the paint on offense.
This strategy has also led Smart to get to the free throw line more often, which is a strategy that has paid dividends for Smart’s teammate, Jayson Tatum. Smart has put together solid games against the Atlanta Hawks and Denver Nuggets thanks purely to his ability to get to the line. He shot poorly in both contests, but he found his way to line for most of his scoring output, and that was all the team needed.
Smart seems to have realized that Tatum and Jaylen Brown are going to get their points one way or another. He needs to play a supporting role, and whether that’s feeding them the ball or taking the open looks that come his way, he needs to be ready to accomplish it. It’s a role that requires Smart to wear many hats, but he’s starting to figure out which ones to wear to certain games.
Defensively, Smart is putting together a nice bounce back campaign after it appeared his defensive capabilities took a step back last season. His 1.8 steals per game are fourth in the league, and he has been the face of Boston’s revamped defense that has taken the league by storm. Adding Derrick White at the Trade Deadline pairs him up with another dominant defensive guard, and it’s going to spell trouble for opposing offenses.
In another way, it feels like Smart has finally stepped up to be the leader this team needs. Gone are the days where Smart is calling out Tatum and Brown in the media for not giving him the ball enough. He knows what is required of him, and now that he has bought into it, the Boston Celtics have looked like a completely different team as a result.
The loss to the Pistons really showed how much this team needs Smart. Offensively, the team was fine for the most part, but defensively they were a mess. Detroit shot 53.3 percent from behind the arc, and picked up 18 offensive rebounds throughout the game.
The Pistons are a bad team, and expecting them to be able to do this on a nightly basis is unrealistic. But they managed to do so against Boston, although I’m not sure it would have happened had Smart been active.
The Boston Celtics expectations for this season have been changed drastically as a result of their recent run, and they owe a lot of that to Smart’s turn around. We have seen him have hot streaks only to revert back to his old ways shortly after, but this feels different for some reason. Smart has finally figured out what his role is on this team, and now that he’s done that, Boston has officially emerged as one of the top contenders out of the East.