Marcus Smart(er): the evolution of the Celtics’ “heart and soul”

For most of his career, fans have taken the good with the bad with Marcus Smart. Good Marcus meant hard-nosed defense and reckless abandon on hustle plays. Bad Marcus would turn from stuntman to dramatic actor as he tried to sell bad calls and take ill-advised shots. For better or for worse, both Marcuses were born out of a selfless need to impact the game.

The irony is unavoidable. On more talent-laden teams, there were times when Smart would try and do too much. Sometimes, that was necessary; reminisce over his barrage of threes in Game 2 against the Toronto Raptors. Sometimes, hero ball made him the villain; in Game 6 against the Miami Heat, his 8-for-22 was more shots than Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward in a season-ending loss.

So far, this season has been different.

With an expanded role as the starting point guard with Walker still on the shelf, he’s raised his assist numbers to a 6.7 per game and more impressively, he’s sporting the highest assist-to-turnover ratio (3.36 per game) of his entire career. After spending years as the “sixth starter,” he’s responded well with more on his plate.

There are some strange statistical anomalies in his game though. He’s hit just eight of his nineteen shots in the restricted area (42.1%). League average is around 57.4%. While the makes and misses can be frustrating, his shot profile does however suggest a new discipline to his decision making. He’s only taken six shots in the mid-range, opting to force the issue in the paint and at the rim. That’s translated to a slight uptick in free throw attempts per game and the career 32% shooter from behind the arc has hit 16-of-39 (41%) to start. But don’t get it twisted. The longest standing Celtic has now been tasked to be a key cog in the team’s offense rather than an unreliable wild card and he’s embraced the challenge.

“Listen, he’s really trying. Over these last seven games, he’s the only person that’s been above 5 assists each game. He’s trying to get us organized, he’s trying to get us in a place where everybody can be successful,” Brad Stevens said after Smart’s first double-digit assist output of the season.

We’ve seen the Cobra strike. We’ve seen Smart the daredevil who will sacrifice his body if it means two points for Boston or two fewer for their opponent. In Year 6, this has so far been a more cerebral Smart.

“He’s bailed us out on so many occasions over the years that I appreciate how much he’s trying to do the right thing on every possession,” Stevens added.

Smart has excelled in all the winning plays that don’t necessarily show up in the box score. He’s a Tommy Point favorite. Now, he’s making headier plays as a point guard or as Stevens might put it, “hitting singles over home runs.” Instead of launching a low percentage three-pointer from the angle, a pump fake and a hesitation dribble freezes two Pistons and Smart smartly drives into the paint.

In another crucial moment in Detroit with the game tied at 113-113, the ball swung to Smart in a similar spot on the floor with nine ticks left on the shot clock. Again, instead of jacking up a three-pointer with three defenders closing in on him, Smart calmly waited for them to commit and hit Theis cutting on the baseline for an and-1.

“Marcus Smart is the heart and soul of this team. His energy and his poise on the offensive end has been great for us. They asked him to step up and play the point guard position and he’s matched that,” Jaylen Brown said. “He’s got me easy baskets, he’s got Jayson easy baskets, and he’s got himself easy baskets. I’m proud to see Marcus Smart grow. The responsibility he’s gotten, he’s handled it well in the first seven games.”

Smart is still susceptible to a heat check. He still has the mentality of a kamikaze pilot on defense. He’s currently wearing a compression shirt after suffering a shoulder contusion attempting to draw a charge from the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon. However, there’s a maturity in his game and even in his tone as the elder statesman of the Celtics.

On Friday night in the first of the two-game series with the Pistons, Smart went 0-for-3 in the clutch, including an air-balled open 3, a front-rimmed floater in the closing seconds, and two missed free throws. When asked about the bunny he missed to potentially tie the game, Smart said, “it didn’t go in, plain and simple.” In the post-game presser, it felt like a gotcha question that the veteran handled like a pro.

The now six-year vet expects these ups and downs from such a young team. “We didn’t expect it to be this bad, but we expected some ups and downs. Lot of curve balls, lot of learning curves thrown our way, a lot of young guys, a lot of new guys, but it’s still not an excuse. The rest of us have been here for a longer period of time. We know the system. We know what Brad wants. We just have to go out there and do it.”