January 24, 2017, approximately 9:30 pm.
The approximate moment Marcus Smart was redecorating a Verizon Center wall with his fist was as arguably the team’s lowest point of the season. The Celtics had just lost frustrating games to the embarrassing Knicks and struggling Blazers. The streaking and cocky Washington Wizards had publicly declared January 24th a funeral for the Celtics, dropping a gauntlet Boston couldn’t pick up. Smart had blown up at his coaches on the bench, and fans were bracing themselves for a dismantling the next night at the hands of James Harden and the Houston Rockets.
Funny things happen, though, at low points. Sometimes they’re a breaking point for lesser teams; the crack that compromises the dam and begins the flood of locker room discord. But for the Celtics, and Smart especially, it was the opposite.
Losing that game, and briefly, his mind was a public humiliation Smart was determined not to repeat. In a post-game apology, he called himself childish and unprofessional, signaling maturity that may have escaped the 22-year-old in the past. From there, he steeled himself for his redemption, which came immediately in a high-energy, trademark bully of a defensive effort that helped the Celtics break their losing streak. It also set in motion a stretch of 11 wins in 12 games that took the Celtics from a game-and-a-half game behind Toronto in the standings to four-and-a-half ahead.
Isaiah Thomas is the driving force behind the Celtics, and Al Horford is the key to so much of what the Celtics do well, but Marcus Smart is the ingredient that makes this whole thing work. Smart’s do-it-all effort against the Sixers shows he is the Celtics’ hydra, attacking opponents from all angles. He’s a menace defensively, he’s a tremendous passer, and, perhaps most impressively, he’s slowly becoming a reliable shooter.
Smart has earned his reputation as an unabashed-chucker from deep who is prone to quick, contested heat-checks. But this season, and especially over this recent 12-game stretch, Smart has become more selective, something Danny Ainge acknowledged today on Toucher & Rich.
“He looks more confident,” Ainge said. “He looks in better rhythm and he’s taking better shots, which I think is the most important part.”
Over the last 12 games, Smart is shooting a very good 38% from deep. On the season, he’s shooting 46.9% from the left corner and 41.2% from the right corner, which are almost exclusively catch-and-shoot situations.
It’s that discipline to begin moving away from contested above-the-break 3’s and get his long-distance shots more within the flow of the offense that has been Smart’s biggest improvement.
“Marcus is 22 years old. He’s going to get better,” Ainge also said today. “He works on his shot. It’s going to improve.”
I’ve banged this drum for a while, but I’ll continue to reinforce my point: Marcus Smart is a third-year player who missed significant time over his first two years. He began his rookie year behind Rajon Rondo, who is now on his third post-Celtics team. Smart’s role is only just now snapping into focus, so it stands to reason that his game is also just now showing signs of what he might become as an NBA player. Smart is the post-child for patience in evaluating young players finding their way in the league.
So it should be no surprise that Smart is drawing strong trade interest around the league. Executives see what some fans are just realizing about Marcus Smart. He’s going to be a very good player in this league, and he will be for quite some time.
And as the Washington incident showed, Smart is still learning valuable lessons of how to handle his fierce emotions. Like light focused into a laser beam, Smart’s properly focused competitive juices and be a powerful thing. Once he masters that and combines that with the slowly-improving shooting discipline, he can turn this great stretch into a great career.
“I can honestly say this is the most comfortable I have been in a Celtics uniform,” Smart said. “It feels good, not only for myself but to be able to contribute to this team in other ways.”
One week from the trade deadline, the question now is whether Smart’s contribution to this team will be as a player down a crucial final stretch of games, or as the key piece to the fireworks-trade we’ve all been waiting for.
One way or another, Smart will be a key piece to the Celtics being a real contender again. We’ll have to wait to see if we will be unleashing him on someone, or preparing for his wrath.
Marcus was a major topic of the latest Locked On Celtics podcast. Here’s Sam Packard and I talking about Smart, Kelly Olynyk’s contribution, and our weekly “Mystery Machine.” Enjoy the show!
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