The Boston Celtics are one of the most fascinating teams in the NBA. Coming into the season, they were seen as legitimate title contenders. They were a team who some – both inside the organization and out - saw dethroning King James and becoming the first Non-LeBron-led team to make the Eastern Conference finals since the Celtics did it in 2010. They had just acquired two All-Stars in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward in a trade and Free Agency respectively, they had just drafted Duke sensation Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart had apparently lost twenty pounds and was ready for his most productive season of his career.
Then, five minutes into their opening game of the season, against LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers no less, their star wing Gordon Hayward went down with one of the most horrific ankle injuries you’re ever likely to see. The team was clearly shaken. They proceeded to lose the game, as well as their following game against Milwaukee, which saw them drop to 0-2. That was supposed to be it. The season was supposed to be over. But it wasn’t.
The Celtics went on to win sixteen straight games and proved that, despite losing Hayward for the season, they were still contenders.
There are a number of easily distinguishable reasons for this somewhat surprising success, such as Brad Stevens’ coaching, and the play of the just-now-dubbed “Big Four” (Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum), but there’s also another reason, and this one may not be as easy to explain.
Photo taken by Keith Allison
Marcus Smart has been one of the Celtics most important players this season. He has also been one of the most enigmatic. From the way that his six-foot-four frame can regularly and successfully post up players seven inches taller than him, to the fact that he’s one of the leagues toughest players yet excels in the art of the flop, Smart has become the walking paradox that Tyler, The Creator once briefly claimed to be. It has almost become a Marcus Smart staple to pair atrocious shooting performances with brilliant plus-minus numbers en route to a scrappy team win. (This was perhaps best shown in the Celtics mid-November win over Golden State where Smart shot 0 for 7 from the floor yet still managed to finish +15.) In fact, despite averaging 31.8% from the field, the worst mark of any player in the entire league (minimum twenty minutes per-game), he still ranks 9th in the league in plus/minus, averaging 8.2.
Regardless of how bad Smart seems to shoot, the team always plays better when he is on the court. So how can we explain these seemingly contradicting statistics? Well, the answer is actually quite simple; his defense.
Smart is one of the most tenacious defenders in the league, ranking 3rd in the league in Defensive Win Shares behind only Eric Gordon and Al-Farouq Aminu. He has the ability to guard a number of different positions and really acts as the floor general when he’s out there, calling out switches and helping teammates in any which way he can.
So that’s it, right? The puzzle is solved!?
Not quite. There’s still another piece of this puzzle to solve.
We just mentioned how terrible Smart is at shooting, especially from long range, but there are actually certain situations in which Smart flourishes and these situations may shock you.
When Smart attempts open three’s – that is, three-pointers attempted when the opposing defender is 4+ feet away - he is shooting at a measly 26.9% clip, the second worst of such clip in the league (minimum 35 attempts). However, when the defender is riding Smart tight (0-4 feet), he is shooting a very respectable 40%. This strange phenomenon was on full display in the Celtics win over the Suns last week, when Smart missed two WIDE OPEN three’s in the space of five seconds, before hitting a much tougher three later in the game where a defender was right up in his face.
The puzzle doesn’t stop there, either.
In situations where Marcus heaves up a three in the first 20 seconds of the team’s offense, he connects only 24.3% of the time. In the final 4 seconds of the shot clock, however, that number shoots to 54.5%, good for first – yes, FIRST! - in the NBA (minimum 8 attempts). It doesn’t quite make sense, but somehow, Smart has turned himself into a legitimate clutch-time scorer. It has even gotten to the point where, even with Kyrie Irving on the floor, Brad Stevens will run late shot-clock ATO’s designed specifically for Marcus Smart. And more often than not, they’re successful. It’s happened plenty of times so far this season, and it will happen plenty of times more.
Despite how influential he is for this team, however, Smart’s future at the Celtics still remains uncertain. His contract is up at the end of the year and it is unknown whether Danny Ainge is willing to commit to him long term. One thing is for sure though; as long as Smart is wearing that famous Celtics jersey, he will give it his absolute all. Celtics fans may spend 99% of any given game being frustrated with him, but rest assured, chances are that he will single-handedly win the game with an unbelievable defensive play, a half-court heave, or even a put-back dunk from his own missed free-throw. Because that’s just what he does.