Marcus Smart sat for Sam Hauser and a scorching Celtics bench unit on Friday late in the third quarter in the Celtics’ win over the Bulls. He returned midway through the fourth, committed two fouls to reach five in the game, and sat on the sideline at the end of the bench, watching as Boston’s 11-point lead dwindled and fellow guards Malcolm Brogdon and Derrick White staved off the Bulls’ comeback with a pair of finishes and a White three.
Smart reentered with one minute remaining and the Celtics ahead, 117-115. He spun around Nikola Vucevic while Al Horford launched a three and tipped his miss to Tatum, who got fouled and hit a game-saving free throw. Joe Mazzulla, speaking one night later before the Celtics’ win over the Knicks, attributed Smart’s five-minute absence prior to foul trouble. He did note Smart’s willingness to sacrifice in other scenarios.
“I don’t know if (Smart) was the odd man out,” Mazzulla told CLNS Media. “I think it was just doing what we did at that particular time, considering the circumstances, and so I think that’s what it’s going to be night-in and night-out. The great thing about our team is we have the humility and the understanding that we have a lot of depth, and that it could look different at different times. At the end of the day, all three guys have been successful in the NBA and we’re going to with what gives us the best chance to win.”
Malcolm Brogdon’s amicable arrival settled any controversy in the back court before the season began. Mazzulla’s decision to start White allowed him to accentuate the starters around him and receive open looks from them. Brogdon has thrived with the second unit, averaging 21.5 points, 5.7 assists and 6.1 rebounds per 36 minutes on 46.7% shooting (36.1% 3PT). Smart struggled with the starters, beginning the year 40.2% from the field and missing threes. He shot 2-for-9 from deep in the first loss to the Cavs, took an off-balance overtime jumper in a narrow loss in the rematch in Cleveland and struggled guarding DeMar DeRozan on Friday.
Instead of Boston considering a switch, Smart turned his start around by serving 23 assists, the most of any two-game stretch in his career, with only three turnovers, while finishing 11-for-20 from the field in offensive and defensive wins over the Knicks and Grizzlies. He got Al Horford and Blake Griffin going inside, helped generate 65 points from Jayson Tatum and connected passing sequences for the best drive-and-kick offense in the league that can sustain into Brogdon’s bench unit.
“I’m just doing all the right things,” Smart said on Saturday. “I’m getting downhill, finding the guys, they’re making shots and when I’m able to have 11 assists or more, it’s really hard for us to be beat — and it does help our rhythm. You’ve got Jayson and Jaylen (Brown) just spotting up and hitting easier shots, you’ve got Grant (Williams) and Sam hitting those easier shots, and it just makes the game that much easier for us.”
Smart created 27.4 of Brown and Tatum’s 40.1 shots per game (4.7 APG) through 10 games, a much larger share than during his first full season as Boston’s point guard. He’s doing so with the same ball time (4.0 minutes per game) and fewer touches, 58.5 compared to 65.2 each night, a credit to his approach and a willingness by Brown and Tatum to get off the ball.
Brogdon and Smart play off each other some when their minutes cross over, but mostly stagger and everyone is embracing pace, screening, playing their role and attacking the paint as Boston’s offense rose to No. 1 on Monday.
“I feel incredibly fresh, because I’m not having to do a lot,” Brogdon said on Friday. “I’m not a top-two, top-three offense and when that’s the case, you’re not burned out by the end of the games or even after the games. So I can come into every game and I’m fresh, I have fresh legs. It’s definitely a benefit, for me, coming off the bench.”
Brogdon also spoke about an adjustment to coming off the bench, the other side of that coin being that it takes longer to warm up while entering games. He made a sacrifice to win, one White also mentioned being willing to take when necessarily.
Smart may also need to accept a late bench role if he doesn’t have it one night. He’s remained available despite aggravating his long-lasting oblique injury when he fell during the preseason. On Sunday, after a rough start to the season defensively, he and Boston’s wings swarmed and rejected Ja Morant and a Grizzlies offensive unit ranked No. 7 in the league entering Monday.
Smart found Tatum and Brown charging toward the rim on offense repeatedly during that opening frame, and used his post leverage in the second quarter to deliver bounce passes to cutting teammates. Defensive stops allowed them to play with some natural pace against a bad Memphis defense.
He’s only averaging 1.7 turnovers per game despite his highly involved status on the ball. When the Celtics run pick-and-rolls through Smart that end in a score, miss or pass into either, which they do 2.6 times per game, he’s the most efficient ball-handler in the NBA, averaging 1.42 points per possession.
“Joe’s just preaching to us, ‘don’t get tired with playing the right way,'” Smart said. “I think every coach preaches that, but to actually see it in action is a thing of beauty, and it’s good for us. It felt good for guys to hit shots. It felt good for the team to see how we play when we play that way, and the things we can do. We’ve got to keep preaching that and keep working on it.”
Smart waited for Al Horford to break into the offensive zone in the left wing in the third, palming the ball out to his right awaiting the big man’s arrival and feeding him for a three. The play before saw him break into the short roll after setting a screen for Tatum, firing a pass to Horford in the right corner for three. He finished the sequence hitting Horford above the rim from the corner, flashing his pure passing that might go unsurpassed on the team.
His court awareness rises to that level too. Boston made the decision on Friday to start Griffin, a veteran who had been losing favor in the rotation and struggling to score until Saturday, when Smart involved him on a pair of pick-and-roll finishes and made an extra pass along the perimeter to find him for three.
Smart also held Morant to a pair of threes and one free throw in their individual matchups, though he indicated he’s playing more centers while Williams guards the perimeter early on this year. Smart grabbed seven boards and boxed out to keep the rebounding battle even. Brogdon did his job across 20 minutes, adding four assists and 10 rebounds.
“We’re figuring it out, we have everybody guarding different positions tonight. We had Grant Williams guarding Ja Morant tonight. Think about that,” Smart said. “So we’re still figuring out things, position, where to be, when to switch and things like that, but we’re figuring it out. We’re finding ways to win games, we’re finding ways to hold up the runs teams are making against us and that’s something that we’ve got to continue to work on.”
Smart stressed, for all their offensive success, it won’t matter on a night where they go cold if they don’t defend. That’s something White, rather than Smart and Brogdon, set a tone with early this season and marks another reason there’ll be moments for all three guards, who all look like they’re pushing each other in a strong back court. Smart began doing so with the strengths of his game on Monday, passing and defense.
“There’s going to come a time when our shots aren’t falling and our defense is going to need to stay where it’s at. When you’ve got a good defense and you’re executing on the defensive end, you’re locked in, you’re communicating, you’re focused on the defensive end,” Smart said. “For us, when our shots don’t fall and our defense isn’t where it’s at, we’re in trouble. So, just like last year, we’ve got to tip our hat on the defensive end, because those are the times and that’s the end when we’re going to win games.”