SAN FRANCISCO — What Marcus Smart aims to do to the Golden State Warriors is what opponents for years were able to do to the Boston Celtics’ point guards.
“I would probably describe it as a lion out on the prowl hunting,” Smart said. “They’re the hunted. We’re the hunters right now. So for me, I’m just out, I’m stealth, I’m waiting for my time to strike and my opportunity.”
This is Smart’s eighth NBA season goal first as Boston’s starting point guard and game-hunting big cat. Moving him there is a huge reason the Celtics were able to reach the NBA Finals, and the defense is so good because of it that they have a great chance of winning the whole thing.
Looking back on past Celtics teams with Smart on the roster, they didn’t have that chance. Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker — Boston’s primary point guards dating to 2017, when the current Celtics core first reached an Eastern Conference finals — were so poor defensively but so gifted with the ball in their hands that they had to be on the court , making those teams vulnerable.
Opponents, the Warriors included, cannot take advantage of these Celtics. Smart, at 6 foot 3 and 220 pounds, is too big, quick and physical to be hunted by anyone. And he has an NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award to back that up. Boston has two rim protectors in starters Robert Williams III and Al Horford, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are strong defenders too.
Smart’s versatility creates a scenario in which the Celtics can switch at any position on the floor and guard the perimeter and lane. There is no one-on-one matchup in which they can be exploited. It’s no wonder they were the NBA’s top-rated defense during the regular season and remain No. 1 in the playoffs.
“There was always somebody on the court for us that we had to cover for,” Smart said. “Somebody would always pick on the guy that we had that we would always have to help, and he would put a strain on our defense.”
Smart has never been a great shooter, nor had he been high on the pecking order of options on offense for past Celtics teams. When Boston shook up its coaching staff and front office, moving Brad Stevens from coach to vice president of basketball operations and hiring Ime Udoka as coach, installing Smart as the starting point guard was another risk.
The early returns were terrible. Boston was stuck in neutral for the first few months of the season, idling outside of the Eastern Conference’s playoff picture through mid-January.
“I know this may be hard to believe,” Smart said, “but I was even more confident in those first two months just for the simple fact because I knew everything was new.”
He applauded the Celtics for sticking to their lineups with him as the starting point guard, and he has rewarded them.
Smart averaged 12.1 points during the regular season. His .418 shooting percentage was the second best of his career, and he set a career mark with 5.9 assists per game. In the postseason, when healthy enough to be on the court, he’s been brilliant offensively, scoring 15.7 points with 6.1 assists and shooting .345 from 3-point range. That’s an extra 3-pointer a game from what he gave Boston during the regular season.
Smart scored 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting, with 4-of-7 shooting on 3s, in Boston’s 120-108 win over Golden State in Game 1.
All of this is notable because in past playoffs, especially in the games that were of utmost importance, opponents forced Smart to shoot. And he couldn’t deliver. There was the 1 of 10 he took in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals against Cleveland, and the 14 of 43 he shot in the last three games of the 2020 Eastern Conference finals against Miami. He returned from injury in the 2019 second round against Milwaukee and shot 1 of 11 in the last two games.
He was the hunted when he had the ball in his hands.
“I’m a smart basketball player. I’m a smart person. And I knew that I’ll figure it out and this team will figure it out,” Smart said. “Once I was able to take the keys, I had a plan in my head of how I wanted things to go, and I just continued to stick with it.”
Don’t kill the Celtics on offense. Turn their defense into a relentless, sledgehammer of a weapon. That’s what Smart has done this season.
Golden State’s point guard — you may have heard of him — Steph Curry, scored 34 points in Game 1, with six 3s in the first quarter. He scored only 13 points over the final three frames and finished 12-of-25 shooting. Smart was upset with his teammates early in the game for confusion on coverages that led to open shots for Curry, but the defense tightened as the game went on. Smart disrupted the Warriors’ flow by guarding Draymond Green, who can initiate from his power forward or center positions, depending on the lineup.
The Celtics have the luxury of playing Smart on Green because they aren’t forced to hide a weaker defender.
“The bottom line is we put Marcus on bigs throughout the season to switch onto their guards at times,” Udoka said. “That’s something in our back pocket that we feel comfortable doing.”
It’s a trap the Celtics set, and it has led to some big kills for Smart, a lion hunting Warriors.
(Top photo of Smart: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)