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Marcus Smart Was The Last Player The Celtics Could Afford To Lose

Photo: Maddie Meyer (Getty Images)

Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart could miss up to the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs after suffering a torn oblique on the left side of his body, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

To say the Celtics will definitely feel the effects of Smart’s absence in the postseason would be an understatement. Smart’s value has never been measured in traditional numbers—this season he averaged 8.9 points (lowest since his rookie year), 4.0 assists and 2.9 rebounds a game—you’re more likely to see his value shine through with advanced stats. He’s third among his teammates in VORP and win shares, second in defensive rating and defensive win shares, and leads the team in steal percentage. He’s also able to create some hilarious box scores where he’ll score less than 10 points and end up as a +32 for the game.

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In a strange way, those batshit numbers make a lot of sense given what Marcus Smart is particularly good at: being an incredible defensive irritant on the floor. It’s not just his ability to snuff out fast-breaks without cheap fouls, secure steals and blocks from players objectively more talented than he is, and draw the kinds of charges that cause players to flip out at officials that makes him so scary. The fact that he’s able to take those abilities to a whole other level in the playoffs is what makes him arguably the most important cog in the Celtics’ postseason machine. Unlike a shooting stroke that can suddenly go cold on the most inconvenient of nights, these kinds of skills don’t necessarily go cold.

But I can already hear the traditionalists sneering at the fact that I dared to use some strange numbers to make my point so here’s a wonderful montage of Smart’s best defensive plays during last year’s playoffs:

You’ll notice that the victims of his defensive plays aren’t the run-of-the-mill backups that are often featured in a team’s second unit. The first minute of the montage alone features stops against Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Ben Simmons, and Joel Embiid. The best part is that the steals and blocks mostly come as a result of Smart just charging at his target at full speed or correctly timing swipes that turn into aggressive steals. It has nothing to do with an unbelievable build, like what Kawhi Leonard has, or a high basketball IQ, like what Chris Paul has. It’s just plain fearlessness, grit or whatever hackneyed term you can think of to mean “he tries really goddamn hard.” Think of how many players would even consider trying to stop a Giannis alley-oop attempt.

Think of how many are capable of intercepting the ball from one of the best passers in NBA history while having just suffered a painful leg injury moments earlier.

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The answer is one, and he’s a 6-foot-4 guard.

It is worth conceding that these highlights did happen when the Celtics were hit with a horrendous injury plague that stripped them of their most talented players for the season. You could argue that Smart only unlocked his supernova potential because there wasn’t anyone behind him in the lineup capable of doing those kind of things. I mean, does a team with Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford in its starting lineup necessarily need a player with the fourth-worst PER on the team to succeed in the playoffs?

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The answer is, well, yes. The team just barely earned home-court advantage for likely just the first round of the playoffs despite playing at full force for a majority of the season. They’ve been on the brink of breaking down and have had plenty of Wizard-like losses to teams they definitely should have beaten over this past year. The underdog mentality that symbolized the team during the 2018 playoffs has been flipped to become growing underachievement, and it’s setting up to all come crashing down sooner rather than later. This is not all setting up to say I think the Celtics will lose to the Pacers, but it does mean Indiana has a chance to at least push Boston to more games than it probably wants to play this early in the postseason. The team is more than capable of outscoring their competition—Kyrie Irving is kind of talented, I’ve been told—but when Celtics opponents start going on crowd-pleasing runs of their own, shots from Boston’s superstars suddenly stop falling, and the Celtics’ memories of their overall discontent with one another start to creep back in, there isn’t anyone who can make the necessary stop on the defensive end that stops that sort of trend and brings energy back into the team. Hell, there’s barely anyone qualified to tell everyone to get their shit together without seeming too passive-aggressive about it.

No matter how far the Celtics end up going in the playoffs, it will definitely end up feeling much, much longer without Smart’s presence.

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