Winners of three in a row with All-Star weekend approaching, the Boston Celtics are feeling better than they have in a while. Their bench is giving them consistent production, big man Robert Williams is flying around the rim like some sort of Shawn Kemp clone, and point guard Kemba Walker finally has back the stroke and quickness that made him a superstar in Charlotte.
But the best news of all might just involve someone who hasn’t seen the floor since January.
Tuesday afternoon, answering questions before Boston’s 117-112 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, head coach Brad Stevens gave an encouraging update on the much-anticipated return of veteran guard and bulwark Marcus Smart.
“He’s getting a lot closer,” said Stevens. “What does that mean? I don’t know. Kind of depends on probably how the break goes and how much he’s able to get in and get in with our people. I think he’s planning on staying here and doing that. And then how much you can actually do from a live standpoint to gear back up.”
In terms of a return date, Stevens didn’t give specifics, but it seems possible Smart could be back for the team’s March 14 matchup with Houston.
“The good news is, in our first few days I think we’ll practice the Wednesday before we play Brooklyn (March 11) and then we’ve got a couple of days before we play again,” said Stevens. “We’ll probably practice all three of those days, which would be a little bit unusual but that should give [Smart] even more chance to practice. And so anytime after that. Then I assume [he’ll] be more ready than not having any practice time.”
Celts Have Struggled Since Injury
Smart hasn’t played since suffering a Grade 1 calf strain in a loss to the Lakers on January 30. The non-contact nature of the injury initially prompted fears of an Achilles tear, likely ending his season, so the calf strain was relatively good news. Reports at the time anticipated just a two-to-three-week recovery.
Of course, that was more than a month ago, and since then the Celtics have struggled mightily to stop opposing backcourts without their de facto captain and two-time NBA All-Defensive first-teamer. In the 17 games since Smart went down, the Celtics are 8-10, at times even floating outside of playoff contention, and opposing wings or guards have scored 30 or more points 11 times.
And while Boston’s current mini-win streak has put them back into 4th place in the East, five games behind leader Philadelphia, the Celtics understand they’ll need a healthy Smart if they have any designs on competing in the season’s second half and playoffs.
“Marcus Smart has been a winning player since he’s gotten here,” Stevens said back in 2020. “We’ve been in the playoffs every year since he’s been here and that’s not a coincidence.”
One Tough Dude
Since being drafted by the Celtics with the sixth pick in 2014, Smart has left his mark on the franchise primarily through hustle and toughness. From 2016-17 to 2019-20, Smart led the team in deflections all four years and took the most charges of any guard or small forward three out four times. Before Smart’s injury against the Lakers, Boston’s defensive rating was 108.9. In the games since: 114.
And not only in Boston is Smart’s defensive prowess recognized. In 2018, he was voted the second toughest player in the league by general managers (tied with Lebron James and behind Steven Adams) and was named to the NBA All-Defensive first team each of the last two seasons.
As his reputation as a fierce defender has solidified, so too has his value on offense. Before his injury in January, Smart was averaging career bests in points (13.1) and assists (6.1), up from previous career bests last season (12.9 and 4.9, respectively). His outside shooting, which has always been a question mark, has also improved. In the previous two seasons, Smart’s 3-point percentages were 36.4% in 2018-19 and 34.7% in 2019-20, far above his career average of 31.8%.
All of which is to say, the Celtics miss Smart’s presence on the court desperately. And his impending return will undoubtedly breath fresh life into a Celtics team looking to keep their winning ways rolling.