On January 30, the night Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart suffered a Grade 1 strain of his left calf contesting a rebound against the Lakers, the Celtics were 10-7 and only 2.5 games out of first place in the Eastern Conference.
Since then, however, Boston has dropped seven of 11 games (including the Lakers matchup, which they lost despite having a lead when Smart went down) and are, as of February 18, 4.5 games behind conference leader Philadelphia.
Coincidence? Probably not.
While many reasons have been suggested to explain Boston’s precipitous downturn — from miserable shooting to bad coaching to a key player not being fully recovered from his bout with COVID-19 — perhaps the most logical explanation is poor defense arising from a general lack of effort and toughness.
And of course defense, effort and toughness are areas on which Smart, a two-time member of the NBA’s All-Defensive first team, stands out most.
‘Plays Basketball Like a Middle Linebacker’
Drafted #6 overall by the Celts out of Oklahoma State in 2014, Smart has led by example basically since the day he arrived. No Celtic has had more deflections, loose ball recoveries or charges taken over the last six seasons. And Smart is renowned for being a positive locker room presence, but at the same time someone not afraid to speak up when the situation calls for a figurative kick in the you-know-where.
As much as anything else, Smart brings toughness to the game, and opposing guards or forwards often dread the knowledge they’ll need to fight for a full 48 minutes to stand a chance against the 6-foot-3 juggernaut. An apt comparison could be bruising NFL running back Derrick Henry who often does his best work in the fourth quarter after wearing down tacklers over the previous three quarters.
And the football analogy is not lost on Danny Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations, who said this in early February when discussing Smart’s eventual return to the court:
“We have gotta be careful and make sure he is healthy. Marcus gets hit a lot as you know. He is physical. He plays basketball like a middle linebacker.”
Smart’s brand of effort, leadership and toughness is not something most teams can afford to lose, and clearly, the Celtics are no exception. But it’s not just the intangibles that have been missing since Smart went down. The numbers tell a story, too.
For the season as a whole, Boston’s defensive rating — the number of points scored by an opponent per 100 possessions — is 110.2, or 10th best in the league. But in the 10 games that Smart has been out, the team’s defensive rating is 112.6, or 15th in the league. Not an insignificant amount, especially when you consider that 2.4 points is greater than the margin between the 9th ranked team (Miami) and the 22nd (Detroit).
Other Pieces Missing
Smart’s absence is of course not the sole cause of Boston’s defensive woes.
Forward Jayson Tatum, who normally brings length and solid effort to both ends of the floor, has not fully recovered from his earlier bout with COVID-19. The young superstar recently revealed that he was still having trouble with stamina despite being cleared to play in late January. His fatigue has been obvious at the close of certain games.
And center Tristan Thompson, who joined the team this offseason and did not get the benefit of training camp because of an injury, often looks lost and slow-footed on defense, particularly on switches.
Even so, there’s no denying — or justifying — Boston’s lack of effort on the defensive end over the last 10 or so games. Smart brings a lot to the table, but his teammates need to step up while he sits down. And if they aren’t willing, don’t be surprised if Marcus Smart has a word or two to say about it.