Marcus Smart stepped into his two-man routine with Jayson Tatum with two minutes remaining after the Timberwolves rallied back within two points, pressuring the Celtics on the verge of another fourth quarter collapse.
Smart dribbled and snuck under the basket as Minnesota’s defense braced for a pitch back to Tatum, and scored a decisive layup. He hit a floater with the same lead through Kyle Anderson’s floater on the one before. A small step forward in crunch time before his fellow struggling teammate Grant Williams made one of his own.
Smart rewarded Joe Mazzulla with the Celtics’ final pair of buckets for his continued faith in playing the guard into crunch time over Derrick White. The drought that followed underscored issues with the closing lineup. Boston’s fourth quarter woes persisted as a nine-point Celtics lead over the Timberwolves with six minutes remaining dwindled to two through three empty Boston possessions. The Celtics held on, 104-102, to win despite not hitting a shot in the last two minutes. Smart finished 4-for-12 (0-5 3PT) with nine points, five assists, three turnovers and five fouls, another uneven outing where his injured right ankle continued to bother him.
He appeared to tweak the injury several times, which he had aggravated three times previously this year. Smart admitted at shootaround it impacted him since the all-star break, returning after missing 11 games from his latest sprain at Toronto in January. He looked like himself serving six assists in his return against Detroit, but averaged 12.2 points per game on 36.1% from the field, 32.3% from three, in 11 games since. Smart’s fouling often, 3.6 times per game, and turning the ball over 2.7 times each night, above his 2.4 average for the season.
Marcus Smart said he believes he’s had a “mediocre” season on defense. He said he’s dealing with a nagging ankle issue that has impacted his mobility.
— Jay King (@ByJayKing) March 15, 2023
At the same time, White and Malcolm Brogdon hit their stride, both shooting over 50% since the break. The Celtics outscored opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions in their minutes, while Smart posted a -5.9 net rating alongside Brogdon. Smart’s -39 (+/-) set a team low in games following the break.
Worse, Payton Pritchard fell with a heel injury on the final play of this month’s loss at Cleveland and is out for the foreseeable future, limiting the team’s ability to rest Smart outright long enough for him to recover. Matchups against bigger, physical teams like the Wolves forced multiple big men into the game, further limiting the guard trio’s ability to all play.
Brogdon, White and Smart only shared 30 minutes together over five games recently, posting a -18.0.Williams closed with Smart and Brogdon, securing a game-sealing offensive rebound and winning the ensuing jump ball on a controversial toss by the official. Smart started the fourth by ripping the ball from Naz Reid, setting off Minnesota’s frustrations with the officiating before Anthony Edwards and Anderson’s last-second ejections.
The win marked the first without Celtics assistant Damon Stoudamire, who became Georgia Tech’s head coach this week and left his role working hands-on with Smart. The pair proved inseparable over the last two years, Stoudamire working out, sharing intricacies and tough talk with Smart when his play went astray.
“The one thing that I think for me is always locking him back into the turnovers,” Stoudamire told CLNS Media in October. “The careless turnovers that is. I think Marcus is a great passer, facilitator. Sometimes he gets a little bit careless with the pass. I think that those are one of the things, and then two, I just think keeping us organized. Those are the biggest things for me, that’s really important. In terms of shots and all that stuff, I don’t say nothing. I don’t coach that. I try to coach controlling the team, knowing what the game needs at that time on the floor.”
Wednesday’s game marked a step, however small, for Smart in the right direction as Mazzulla suddenly faces rotation uncertainty as the season closes. He bounced between three significant lineup changes in the first quarter while Robert Williams III’s impending return next week creates another difficult lineup decision regarding White, arguably Boston’s best guard all season who plays the least of their three regulars. The Celtics outscored the Wolves by a team-high 11 points in White’s 24 minutes, falling short of Brogdon’s 31 and Smart’s 35.
The Celtics need Smart. There’s no doubt about that. How much is the question, especially while he only plays at a percentage of his full strength. His crashes on the offensive boards in games against Cleveland and Houston in the fourth quarter nearly stole wins against both teams. Mazzulla undoubtedly appreciates his aggressiveness with shooting open threes, setting up Williams’ key rebound with an open miss in Minnesota.
Two nights earlier, he fouled out after finishing 2-for-7 with an inexplicable turnover running ahead of everyone in transition. His behind-the-back feed set up Tatum’s slam over Rudy Gobert while his movement doesn’t appear at a level capable of keeping offensive players in front of him consistently. That explains his uptick in fouling. The Celtics miss nothing more than his steady ball-handling and willingness to set up teammates.
In fourth quarters since the break, Brown, Brogdon, despite missing two games, Tatum, Smart and Al Horford lead the team in total fourth quarter minutes. Boston ranks last in offense over that stretch, posting an abysmal 101.9 points per 100 possessions. Their -15.2 net rating to close games sits at 30th too while the Celtics’ 50.2 eFG% only exceeds the Jazz and Raptors’ late game efficiency.
Williams III leads the team in crunch time net rating (+16.7) in his last two appearances, wins over the Pacers and 76ers. Tatum posted a +9.5 in all but the road loss to Cleveland, with Horford joining him at +7.0 in the same seven games. White posted a +3.6 in five games, leading all the guards, but the Celtics lost 3-of-5 to New York twice and the Cavs. Brogdon won 3-of-5 games he closed with a +1.8 rating. Smart fell to -1.4 on Wednesday.
The return of his two-man game with Tatum became a pleasant surprise, though the awkwardness of the sets placed the Celtics on the verge of another bad loss. The win didn’t alleviate anyone’s concerns, especially Brown, who scored 35 points to lead the team again while Tatum struggled at 4-for-16. Brown called out the team’s sense of urgency after the game in those critical moments. White, not exactly a vocal presence, can provide playmaking in those moments of Smart proves incapable. Mazzulla, however, appears prepared to trust his point guard.
“It’s up to leadership to make sure we don’t drop the ball and make sure everybody feels empowered,” Brown said in Minnesota. “As the season has continued on, we’ve found different ways, I’ve been challenged as a leader and this was one of those moments where we need a little bit of urgency, so this is one of those moments where you’ve got to step up, talk more, step up and be a leader in times of adversity.”
“We’ve dropped a couple games, and those are the moments where you’ve gotta step up and find ways to win and challenge our teammates … I challenge myself, anytime adversity hits … those are the moments I look to where everybody’s feeling low … those are the moments where I’m like, ‘let’s get it going’ … everything’s cool when everything’s fine, when everybody’s hitting shots, but when the boat is going down, who’s gonna step up? Who’s gonna be ready to go? I pride myself on being one of those guys.”