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Marcus Smart, a ‘lion on the prowl’ who’s hunting an NBA title for Celtics


SAN FRANCISCO — What Marcus Smart goals to do to the Golden State Warriors is what opponents for years were in a position to do to the Boston Celtics’ point guards.

“I might probably describe it as a lion out on the prowl hunting,” Smart said. “They’re the hunted. We’re the hunters at once. So for me, I’m just out, I’m stealth, I’m waiting for my time to strike and my opportunity.”

That is Smart’s eighth NBA season but first as Boston’s place to begin guard and game-hunting big cat. Moving him there is a big reason the Celtics were in a position to reach the NBA Finals, and the defense is so good due to it that they’ve an incredible probability of winning the entire thing.

Looking back on past Celtics teams with Smart on the roster, they didn’t have that probability. Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker — Boston’s primary point guards dating to 2017, when the present Celtics core first reached an Eastern Conference finals — were so poor defensively but so gifted with the ball of their hands that they’d to be on the court, making those teams vulnerable.

Opponents, the Warriors included, cannot make the most of these Celtics. Smart, at 6 foot 3 and 220 kilos, is simply too big, quick and physical to be hunted by anyone. And he has an NBA Defensive Player of the Yr 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 through which the Celtics can switch at any position on the ground and guard the perimeter and lane. There isn’t any one-on-one matchup through which they will be exploited. It’s no wonder they were the NBA’s top-rated defense in the course of the regular season and remain No. 1 within the playoffs.

Marcus Smart has the flexibility to cover guard Seth Curry or the Warriors’ big men. (Kyle Terada / USA Today)

“There was all the time anyone on the court for us that we needed to cover for,” Smart said. “Any person would all the time pick on the guy that we had that we might all the time must help, and it could put a strain on our defense.”

Smart has never been an incredible 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 vp of basketball operations and hiring Ime Udoka as coach, installing Smart as the start line guard was one other risk.

The early returns were terrible. Boston was stuck in neutral for the primary few months of the season, idling outside of the Eastern Conference’s playoff picture through mid-January.

“I do know this will likely be hard to consider,” Smart said, “but I used to be much more confident in those first two months only for the easy fact because I knew every part was recent.”

He applauded the Celtics for sticking to their lineups with him as the start line guard, and he has rewarded them.

Smart averaged 12.1 points in the course of the regular season. His .418 shooting percentage was the second better of his profession, and he set a profession mark with 5.9 assists per game. Within the postseason, when healthy enough to be on the court, he’s been sensible offensively, scoring 15.7 points with 6.1 assists and shooting .345 from 3-point range. That’s an additional 3-pointer a game from what he gave Boston in the course of 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 that is notable because in past playoffs, especially within the games that were of the 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 within the last three games of the 2020 Eastern Conference finals against Miami. He returned from injury within the 2019 second round against Milwaukee and shot 1 of 11 within the last two games.

He was the hunted when he had the ball in his hands.

“I’m a wise basketball player. I’m a wise person. And I knew that I’ll figure it out and this team will figure it out,” Smart said. “Once I used to be in a position to take the keys, I had a plan in my head of how I wanted things to go, and I just continued to persist with it.”

Don’t kill the Celtics on offense. Turn their defense right into a relentless, sledgehammer of a weapon. That’s what Smart has done this season.

Golden State’s point guard — you’ll have heard of him — Steph Curry, scored 34 points in Game 1, with six 3s in the primary quarter. He scored only 13 points over the ultimate three frames and finished 12-of-25 shooting. Smart was upset together with his teammates early in the sport for confusion on coverages that led to open shots for Curry, however the defense tightened because 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 posh of playing Smart on Green because they aren’t forced to cover a weaker defender.

“The underside line is we put Marcus on bigs throughout the season to change 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)

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