BOSTON — Amid the growing schism in today’s NBA between old-school and new-school, with all the vitriol spat back and forth between the likes of Charles Barkley and Daryl Morey, Marcus Smart has been able to span the divide.
Both blood-and-guts traditionalists and MIT-bred analytics adherents alike have praised the Boston Celtics’ rookie point guard this season, even as his statistics float between mediocre and nothing special and as his team lags far below .500. His game isn’t pretty. His numbers aren’t overly impressive.
But there’s no doubting the kid can play, and the way he plays has earned him fast respect for a rookie.
Many moments this season have suggested Smart could be something special, if anyone has been watching. Wednesday’s stunning victory over the Atlanta Hawks was yet another example. Evan Turner was the last-second hero with his game-winning shot, but Smart hit two of the biggest shots in helping the Celtics wipe out an 18-point deficit.
And it all came in what could be considered one of his worst games, all things considered, as a pro.
“It shows a lot about the coaching staff, that they trust me to put me back in there down the stretch, even though things weren’t going my way in the beginning,” Smart said. “They stuck with me, so it just shows a lot of the respect I’ve earned from those guys, and I’m still earning.”
Smart scored 11 points on 3-for-12 shooting, including 2-for-7 beyond the 3-point line, with three assists, four turnovers and four fouls. He lofted a turnaround airball and had a spot-up jump shot partially blocked earlier in the game, and coach Brad Stevens appear to pull him at one point for his offensive struggles.
Come crunchtime, though, Smart was back in. His contested backdoor layup on a feed from Turner cut Atlanta’s lead to five points, which he narrowed to two with a 3-pointer just over a minute later. Turner, Jared Sullinger and Avery Bradley brought Boston all the way back in the 89-88 win, but Smart’s very presence on the court — as a rookie who up to that point had not played particularly well — was telling in just how much the Celtics think of their young point guard.
“I thought Marcus didn’t play very well (Wednesday), but he hit a huge shot late and he stepped up when it was all on the line, hit the backdoor layup and then the three,” Stevens said. “That’s a credit to him. That’s a credit to who he is. Those experiences are good for him.”
The win gives the Celtics more than just some positive mojo going into the All-Star break. Now 7-5 in their last 12 games, the Celtics somehow still are in the playoff hunt, 1 1/2 games out of the top-heavy Eastern Conference’s eighth seed. Debate rages both inside and outside the locker room whether the Celtics should shoot for the postseason or jettison their remaining pieces of value before Thursday’s trade deadline.
Smart isn’t going anywhere, but his numbers-defying performances like the one Wednesday are reason to believe he could eventually take the Celtics somewhere: up.
“He hit some big shots, man,” Turner said. “I’m glad he stuck with it. That’s great mental toughness and a great way to grow as a young player. He came in, guarded, and I think his defense got him going. He stayed mentally tough and he made a big shot, so I think everybody is going to forget about what occurred at the beginning and remember what happened at the end. That’s a big-time play and mature on his part.”
Smart still has a ways to go, and if he’s still sputtering on the offensive end two years from now, nobody will be singing his praises. For now, though, Smart is showing that numbers sometimes do lie. He’s more concerned with letters, anyway — particularly W’s.
Thumbnail photo via Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports Images