The Celtics' defense has struggled mightily against both big men and sharpshooters in the absence of Jae Crowder and Al Horford. After losing three consecutive games, coach Brad Stevens shook up his temporary starting lineup by inserting Marcus Smart for Jaylen Brown.
Smart leads by example and plays with a ferocity that exemplifies Celtics basketball. The energetic three-guard starting lineup featuring Smart, Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley has scrapped together three wins in four games. During all three victories, the Celtics held their opponents under 100 points.
Smart's aggressive "KG-like" intensity exasperates opponents. It has also been crucial in reestablishing the Celtics’ reputation as a defensive-minded team that wins games through hustle and hard work.
During last Thursday’s 115-87 flogging of the New York Knicks, Smart's defense proved too overwhelming for Carmelo Anthony, who was ejected during the second quarter for excessively cursing at referee Tony Brothers.
This marked the second consecutive game that Smart’s physical play facilitated the ejection of the opposing team’s best player, after Washington’s John Wall was previously tossed for earning a flagrant 2 foul.
Had Smart started in Washington, it is unlikely that the Wizards would have battered the Celtics 34-8 in Boston’s worst first quarter in franchise history. It is even less likely that Otto Porter would have scored a career-high 34 points.
On Monday night in New Orleans, Smart drew an offensive foul against Solomon Hill, who dunked and flexed his arms to the crowd, oblivious to the fact that he was celebrating his own turnover as Smart sat on the ground laughing at him.
During last night’s 90-83 victory against Dallas, coach Brad Stevens implemented a rebounding strategy that focused on crashing the boards with Smart and Boston’s other athletic guards.
The result: the Celtics outrebounded the Mavericks 53-32, their best rebounding margin since November 5, 2014.
Crowder and Horford’s pending return will strengthen the Celtics defense even further, but in the meantime, Smart has seized a leadership role in his third season.
With elite defensive skills, awareness and unrelenting intensity, Smart could join Bradley on the All-NBA Defensive team. Both guards have blossomed into dynamic two-way playmakers and young leaders for a legitimate Eastern Conference contender.
Smart's focus and passion are infectious to his teammates. He inspires them by playing fearlessly against stronger opponents and revels in the challenge of defending taller players. As Terry Rozier told reporters in September,
"You need a guy like that... That’s one of the guys I’ll always take on my team, a guy like Marcus Smart, because he’s always going to make it tough on the opposing team and you always know he’s got your back and he’s always going to play hard."
After missing the first three games of the season, Smart has returned to form as one of the NBA’s premiere defenders. His versatility enables him to cover three different positions, sometimes even four when necessary.
Smart is constantly improving and has eagerly embraced his expanding role as an indispensable leader and a difference-maker for the young Celtics.