Marcus Smart is controlled chaos. Or, if you prefer meme parlance, he’s the NBA player who perhaps best fits the description of “chaotic good.”
It’s difficult to remember a moment in any Celtics game when Smart was still. Stillness doesn’t compute for him. His game projects one word above all: activity. It encapsulates everything from his hustle—which leads him to save balls from going out of bounds and chase down blocks—to his dramatic flopping. Even these transgressions add to his legend. He’s looking for any and all edges he can get, and he doesn’t mind conjuring some of them out of thin air.
Smart always has been unique; these playoffs have merely given his game the platform it’s deserved. Gordon Hayward sprained his ankle in a first-round game against the Sixers and had to leave the bubble to get treatment. While Hayward’s absence cut into Boston’s depth, it also simplified things for Brad Stevens and Co.: Smart became the fifth starter along with Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, and Daniel Theis in a new slimmed-down, versatile, and devilish lineup combination that’s posted a plus-4.2 net rating through three playoff series.
Back on August 18, hours after news broke that Hayward’s ankle would keep him out for at least a month, a clairvoyant Smart predicted exactly what would happen to his role and how he would have to adapt. “Starting doesn’t require me to be more of an offensive threat, so I can spend most of my energy on the defensive end,” he said. “But the energy is the same.”
Smart started 40 games during the regular season, so this role wasn’t foreign to him, but he has jumped from 32 minutes a game to 39 since Hayward went out. As Smart explains it, when he comes off the bench, he’s expected to be a more assertive, two-way player who can generate some offense. Smart is at his best, though, when he’s able to focus on his defensive strengths—and he’s able to do that better the more he’s on the floor. “I got to be that defensive pest that I am,” he said, “be the best defensive player in the league that I am.”
Smart isn’t short on confidence, though he wasn’t short on that even before he entered the NBA. He’s not a precise player like Tatum, who looks more like he was engineered in a lab to be a modern wing. Instead, Smart’s game combines basketball skill with otherworldly levels of instinct and energy. There’s a relentlessness that underlines every Smart movement; he stands out by simply being, and he jumps off the page once he starts playing. While the Tatums of the NBA make the game look easy, Smart almost makes it look harder, and in the process turns nearly everything he does into an achievement.
On the defensive end, that means treating his body like a rag doll while still managing to have the control of an elite on-ball defender. On offense, things are more hit or miss, but when he was inserted into the starting lineup following Hayward’s departure, Smart was keenly aware of what he needed to do on that end, too.
“There’s a lot more emphasis on Jayson, Jaylen, and Kemba,” he said. “I have to be ready to knock down shots right away.”
Throughout Smart’s career, more minutes and more shots haven’t always been a good thing. He has a proclivity for taking irrationally confident shots, which in turn take good opportunities and possessions away from his teammates. During these playoffs, though, that’s become the exception rather than the rule. In the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Raptors, Smart averaged 15.7 points, 6 rebounds, and 5.1 assists; made 24 of his 61 3s (the best mark on the team); and amassed a plus-minus of plus-64, leading all players. His 56 true shooting percentage in the playoffs so far is the highest of his career.
He hit five 3s in the fourth quarter of Game 2 to put away the Raptors. In Game 7, he scored 16 points but took 10 3s and made only two. Still, shades of that version of Smart were papered over by what he did on the defensive end. He guarded Kyle Lowry on 25 possessions and held him to zero points on 0-for-1 shooting and one turnover. Smart also added three steals and a block. Such numbers are typical for him, but it’s the unforgettable moments he’s created during this run that are really earning him statue status in Boston: the defensive effort, the charges he took, and especially this game-saving block in Game 7:
When the Celtics needed it most, Marcus Smart came through with the block pic.twitter.com/rpeKkgjRoS— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 12, 2020
Naturally, Smart explained the block in his own way. “When [Norman Powell] caught the ball, in my mind I was thinking to myself, ‘He has to dunk it,’” Smart said. “I’m not going to give him no foul, I’m just gonna meet him up top and see who wins that battle. I bet on myself 110 percent of the time, and I’m first-team All-Defense for a reason.”
Make no mistake about this: Hayward is a player the Celtics need and look forward to having back. He is another wing who fits their versatile team, and he is a better offensive playmaker than Smart given his passing and scoring abilities. But Smart doesn’t just bring his own versatility. He also offers a certain feistiness that Hayward, who is expected to return at some point during the conference finals, doesn’t.
Smart is clearly the Celtics’ spirit, and he embodies their attitude to a T. He’s the kind of player who makes even the most number-focused cynics believe in intangibles; the kind of player who can swing a game by doing anything from forcing a jump ball to closing out on a shooter. And while Smart’s best attributes can sometimes be muddled by his streaky shooting and not-so-impressive numbers during the regular season, in a playoff setting, his contributions are bolded, underlined, and in all-caps. He is, as Draymond Green would say, a 16-game player.
“Every year, he’s been [in the playoffs] and it’s not a coincidence,” Stevens said of Smart.
“If you going to war, if you in a Game 7,” Tatum said of Smart after winning Game 7, “that’s who you want on your team.”
The Celtics might be in store for one or two more Game 7s before the season is up. At the very least, the Miami Heat, their Eastern Conference finals opponent, will provide an even bigger challenge that will require not just a healthy Hayward but this exact version of Smart too. So far, there’s no sign that Smart is going to slow his pace. The way he’s playing in Orlando is turning this Celtics team into its own version of chaotic good—one that may even be able to win a title.