There have been times during Marcus Smart’s career when it felt easier to focus on what he couldn’t do. He entered the league as a point guard by trade out of Oklahoma State, but no one has ever confused him for a primary offensive creator. He struggled to score efficiently, shooting under 40 percent from the field in each of his first three seasons. His three-point shot was shaky at best, finishing at or below 30 percent from behind the arc three different seasons of his career.
What Smart is so good at is often less obvious. It’s a well-timed defensive rotation; a quick dig into the paint and a speedy recover to the arc. It’s an ability to keep an offensive player from driving baseline, or tipping a contested rebound to a teammate. It’s his unwavering belief that every drive by a bigger offensive player can turn into a charge if he times it just right. Put together, Smart’s value is both obvious and immense even if it shows up in ways that feel around the fringes to the main plot.
Smart’s defining quality as a player is less of a mystery: it’s his unwavering desire to win, not just full games gives but every sequence, every single second he’s on the floor. Those are the players you especially want on your side for a Game 7. The Celtics wouldn’t have advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals without him.
As Boston outlasted the defending champion Raptors, 92-87, in the conclusion to an epic seven-game second round series, it was Smart who made the most memorable play of the night. As Toronto’s Norman Powell raced down the court to attempt a potential game-tying layup with under one minute left, Smart timed his block from behind perfectly and cleanly swatted the ball:
Asked about the play, Smart said “I’m first-team all defense for a reason.” It felt like his whole career built up to this moment and this series.
There are so many driving forces behind Boston’s breakthrough into the conference finals as a No. 3 seed. Jayson Tatum is an ascendent superstar, perhaps the second best young player alive behind Luka Doncic. Kemba Walker was a perfect free agent signing at point guard in the wake of Kyrie Irving’s departure. Jaylen Brown has more or less developed into the player the Celtics hoped he would become when they drafted him, Daniel Theis has given Boston so much more in the middle than they could have reasonably anticipated. Brad Stevens was an outside-the-box hire at head coach that worked out wonderfully. Executive Danny Ainge put it all together.
It’s Smart who has always been this team’s beating heart. There are many better players in the NBA, but there are few you’d rather have on your team in an elimination game. Smart personifies all the qualities that so often get prescribed to lesser players at lower levels: he’s tough, he’s gritty, he’s relentless. Those terms are so cliched it’s occasionally hard to remember what they actually mean, at least until Smart smacks you in the face with all of the above.
Smart has been an ace defender since the early days of his career, but it’s his offensive performance against Toronto that’s a testament to the work he’s put in. Smart caught fire from three-point range in Game 2, hitting five of his six threes on the night within a three-minute span in the fourth quarter to push Boston to a narrow victory. Smart hit six more threes in the iconic Game 6 of this series — one of the best playoff games the league has seen in years. For the series, he averaged 15.7 points per game with six rebounds, 5.1 assists and nearly 38 percent shooting from deep.
When the series ended, Smart couldn’t help himself from talking some smack:
THE KING OF THE NORTH! THE KING OF THE NORTH!THE KING OF THE NORTH! THE KING OF THE NORTH!THE KING OF THE NORTH! THE KING OF THE NORTH!THE KING OF THE NORTH! THE KING OF THE NORTH!THE KING OF THE NORTH! THE KING OF THE NORTH!THE KING OF THE NORTH! pic.twitter.com/zgz4Ptjip1— marcus smart (@smart_MS3) September 12, 2020
Even at his best, Smart never makes it look pretty. He has a special ability to blur the line of legality, often shamelessly flopping to see if he can trick the refs into calling a charge. Even when he’s hot shooting the ball, Celtics fans have to cringe a little bit as he hoists three after three. There is so much beauty and grace in the sport, but that’s not Smart’s game. Instead, Smart’s mere presence makes each game just grimy enough to work to his advantage.
There is no battle too small for Smart, no individual moment he will concede for the bigger picture. Watch another team or another player if you’re looking for elegance on the floor. Marcus Smart just wants to win.