The Boston Celtics have dropped nine of their last 15 contests — including three in a row — and now are two full games behind the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors entering the NBA All-Star break. They’ve also played their last 10 games without Marcus Smart.
That’s not a coincidence.
When the young guard busted his hand on a Beverly Hills picture frame on Jan. 24, he hurt more than himself. He also hurt a Celtics team currently lacking in two qualities that Smart provides in spades: defense and effort.
Exhibit A: From opening night until Jan. 23, Boston boasted the NBA’s best defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) at 99.8. From that date on, the C’s have plummeted to 14th, with a 108.2 defensive rating over their last 10 contests. That stretch includes Stephen Curry’s 49-point performance for the Golden State Warriors and Victor Oladipo’s 35-point outburst for the Indiana Pacers last Friday.
Smart’s defensive void has been particularly noticeable over the last two games, in which Boston has allowed a whopping 250 points in nationally televised losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers. In both contests, the second unit’s backcourt killed the Celtics — Jordan Clarkson (17 points) and Rodney Hood (15 points) on Sunday, and Lou Williams (19 points) and Milos Teodosic (10 points) on Wednesday.
In addition to defending opponents’ best players, Smart is the engine that propels Boston’s bench, and without him, teams have trampled the C’s when Kyrie Irving comes off the floor.
Speaking of trampling: Head coach Brad Stevens said bluntly Wednesday night teams have outplayed the Celtics. A team that hangs its hat on grinding out wins through sheer effort, Boston has, quite simply, gotten punched in the mouth in several games over the last two weeks, coming out flat and taking too long to flip the switch.
Smart’s switch, it seems, is always on. For all his offensive woes — he’s shooting 35.7 percent from the floor this season while committing a career-high 2.5 turnovers per game — he consistently increases the Celtics’ energy level when he’s on the court and isn’t afraid to mix it up a little bit — as James Harden can attest.
Of course, Boston’s successes or failures don’t all hinge on Smart. The Celtics have looked fatigued ever since returning from London in early January and could badly use the upcoming time off. They need Jaylen Brown to bust out of his sophomore slump and Jayson Tatum to give them more consistent offense. You also could argue the C’s have overachieved since losing Gordon Hayward on opening night, and that they’re simply regressing to the mean.
It’s become obvious over the last two weeks, though: Boston is a significantly better team with Smart on the floor and should benefit greatly from his expected return after the All-Star break. Just ask president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, who seemed to confirm Smart’s true value by opting not to trade the 23-year-old last week despite some reportedly enticing offers.
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