The way Marcus Smart transitioned to guard made the Celtics title contenders

Via Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA Writer

A big smile spread all over Smart Marcusof his face as he walked through the door. It’s the summer of 2021, and he comes home from a meeting with Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka, who just told Smart he will enter the upcoming season as the team’s starting point guard.

Kenny Boren, Smart’s high school coach who greeted him that day “recalls the confidence and relief in his body language.

Nearly nine months later, the Celtics are just two wins away from their first game NBA Finalists have been around since 2010. There is a list of reasons why this year’s team has been so successful. But the decision to convert Smart to the important issue was chief among them.

“I think everyone in the organization – in the world – has seen what I can do in that point guard position,” Smart told reporters after leading the Celtics with 24 points, 12 assists. assists and 9 rebounds in their games. 127-102 hit hard Later Miami Heat in game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Smart always considers himself a defender of opinion. “That was his natural position,” said Vonzell Thomas, Smart’s AAU coach. When playing for Thomas, Smart got into the habit of letting teammates off the hook because, he told the coach, “If nobody passes them, they’ll think people don’t believe in them.”

Protect smart play in high schools in Texas and at Oklahoma State same, but he was never a goalscorer. “He has to be one of the only kids to be named Mr. Texas and not lead his team in points,” Thomas said.

Danny Ainge, the Celtics’ former president of basketball operations who in 2014 drafted Smart sixth overall, sees him more as a no-ball pick. Ainge wants the ball in the hands of players who can attack one on one. He believes that’s how the playoff games are won and, he told colleagues around the league, the skill he values ​​most.

And so the Celtics spent years coming up with squads that featured smaller, first-shot point defenders. First time coming Isaiah Thomas. Later Kyrie Irving. Later Kemba Walker. This trio helped take the Celtics to seven consecutive playoffs and three Conference finals over a five-year period. But even though LeBron James support for the Western Conference and open the door for three different Eastern Conference teams to make it to the Finals since 2019, the Celtics have failed to make it through.

There are growing concerns that they have missed their window.

This season, the team reshuffled its leadership. Ainge stepped down. Brad Stevens, his longtime head coach, replaced him at the helm of the organization – and later selected Udoka, a longtime NBA player and assistant coach, as his replacement. he.

One of Udoka’s first changes was to establish a switch-heavy defense scheme. To do so, he needs a point guard who can both slow down dribblers and beat big men. Smart, whom the Celtics signed a four-year, $77.1 million contract extension for the season, is the perfect fit.

The defense, which ended the season as the best in the league, regrouped very quickly. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Smart ball handlers have been polished on the top of the key and also transfer to large balls. NBA fouls are predicted based on their ability to lure two defenders onto the ball – either through the screen or by forcing the defense to bring the second defender towards a star – and then generate a profit. four against three. Acquiring Smart, with its size, speed, and snakehead intelligence allowed the Celtics to nullify this strategy.

“One of the things about [Smart] move to point and Jaylen [Brown] go to two and Jayson [Tatum] go to three is we’re great at those points,” Stevens said in April after Smart was named NBA Defensive Player of the Year. “And so Marcus can use some of his strengths there, and he can still switch and defend everyone else, but it’s nice to have him on the offensive at the bottom of the floor defense. “

The offense, however, is a different story. It stepped out of the cramped and sluggish portal, with Smart struggling in his new role. The Celtics started the season 25-25. The players lashed out at each other during press conferences. Udoka has openly criticized his group. Questions revolved around the viability of the Tatum-Brown pair, with ESPN’s Zach Lowe, as a key reporter while there covering the NBA, only half podcast discussed Tatum and Brown’s potential deals with Jeff Van Gundy, the network’s #1 NBA analyst.

The Celtics appear to be on the verge of collapse.

The turning point came in early February, after Smart returned from a six-game absence and helped the Celtics win eight of nine. The team’s strong play convinced Stevens and Udoka that it was time to part ways Dennis Schroder – the first point guard the Celtics signed last season – and relies entirely on Smart as the main clearer.

The Celtics offense was successful. In 20 games after the break, Boston beat the opponent by 122.6 points per 100 possession, a jump of 12 points and the league’s top rate for that period. The Celtics have turned into a dominant team at both ends of the ring, and after reeling from 26 wins in their last 32 games, took the East’s number two seed.

“I’m not the type of coach who wants to call up a play every time he comes down. I leave it in his hands,” Udoka said of Smart recently. “He usually makes the right decisions.”

Those who have spent time with Smart and the Celtics say they’re not surprised. A former assistant coach said former team members felt Smart made better decisions – and were less likely to hit ill-advised shots – when playing point of view. Celtics players say the same to friends.

Scott Morrison, who served as assistant coach of the Celtics from 2017 to 2021, said: “His biggest strengths, in my opinion, have always been his ability to read the ball well and create assists. others”.

Smart, grasping the role, averaging career-best 5.9 assists per game. He also pitches more often than ever (60.5 passes per game in the knockout stages, according to second spectral tracking datacompare to 48.8 in last season).

That mindset – and the removal of another AD carry – has shifted more responsibility to Tatum and Brown, who know they are more likely to get the ball back and see the effectiveness of pinging the ball around the court can be. become more willing passers. . The Celtics finished their 10th season in terms of assists percentage, a jump of 15 places from the previous year.

“I’m a defender of my opinion,” Smart said recently, “I put a lot of pressure on our boys so they don’t have to try to force it as much, so they can be the right person. surname”.

No moment better exemplifies Smart’s new approach – and how it elevates the team as a whole – than the final seconds of the Celtics’ first win in the playoffs this year. Beating a man with 12 seconds left, they forced an athlete to jump from brooklyn network star Kevin Durant. Udoka, refusing to call the timeout, urged his players to push the ball to the floor.

With the remaining time of 3.5 seconds, Smart caught the ball from the left-back but failed to shoot. Instead, he tampered with, pulled into the lane, and found a cutting Tatum who had placed the ball out of the glass right in front of the whistle.

“We all thought Smart was going to shoot it,” Tatum said after the game. “During that dribble we just made eye contact. He made a great pass.”

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Rise to the top: the Philadelphia 76ers and the most incredible run in professional sports history. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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