As each of the remaining four teams in the NBA Playoffs have learned in their own ways, the demands of postseason basketball are such that advancing through the tournament requires you to play both smarter and harder. It is not enough to run pretty sets and generate open looks by sheer force of brain-thinking, you also have to hit people. The Boston Celtics currently look like the favorites to win the championship because they reliably create the best shots and also because the guys who create all those good shots have high levels of That Dawg in them. The tip of the spear here is clearly Marcus Smart.
Smart missed Game 1, a soggy affair in which the Heat lost three quarters yet delivered 12 minutes of perfect, burly basketball and sank the Celtics. “It wasn’t a lot of, like I said, schemes or defensive or offensive changes. They just came out and punked us that third quarter,” coach Ime Udoka said, acknowledging the brains-brawn dialectic. “We looked at the three quarters and how well we had done winning those quarters, and knew if we just matched their physicality we could be better.” Boston spotted Miami a quick 18-8 lead in Game 2, before locking in and producing a 57-27 run over the span of a quarter and a half. It was as comprehensive an asskicking as that Maverickian margin suggests: Boston hit nine of their 11 first-quarter three-pointers, while Miami shot 3-for-15 over the last 20 minutes of the first half. So what changed?
The obvious answer here is also the right one: Al Horford came back from the shortest case of COVID-19 in recorded human history, and also Marcus Smart re-entered the lineup. Jayson Tatum is unquestionably Boston’s best player, Jaylen Brown is playing with an unprecedented level of control, and Grant Williams is becoming an efficiency monster. But Smart is the player who fundamentally changes who the Celtics are, on both offense and defense. Boston shot the hell out of the ball on Thursday, though the most significant change for them between games was their defensive performance. That began with Smart. The Defensive Player of the Year is a violently disruptive defender, someone who never willingly cedes an inch of space, nor lets any simple, even immediately unthreatening action happen on his watch without some harassment. Boston’s defense is not altogether that complex—unlike what the Warriors are having to do to contain Luka Doncic. They know exactly who to leave open and who to chase off the line. They prioritize killing transition offense. They switch most of the time, and will blitz and trap as a change-of-pace tactic. They know exactly what space they need to deny and how to shuffle around as a five-man unit to do so. It all begins with Smart’s point-of-attack defense, which is so impressive to watch every time out. The result was a 86.5 half-court offensive rating for Miami and 18 turnovers.
The Celtics also play without someone who you could easily classify as a traditional point guard, though that distinction only matters to the extent that credit can’t easily be apportioned to a single player. Because the whole team moves the ball well. That was the single biggest change the team underwent when they suddenly turned into world-beaters in January. They started making simple passes, the ball stopped sticking, and everything flowed from there. The Celtics have enough good shooters that a relatively simple change opened everything up. Like the defense, this starts with Smart. He was the Celtic calling for this exact change earlier this year, and the team remade themselves in his image. Smart logged 12 of Boston’s 28 assists last night, most notably the following one, where he outfoxed the entire Heat defense. Smart’s shot failed him early in the game, though he helped bury Miami for good in the third quarter when he cranked up the aggression and began embarrassing Miami’s defenders.
Smart took a team-high 22 shots last night, which scans as not ideal, as Tatum and Brown are the team’s two most talented offensive players. The Celtics have won crucial playoff games during their run thanks to career nights from both Horford and Grant Williams, and Smart leading the line is actually coherent with their vision for how they want to win games. They’ve capably punished great NBA defenses by not being doctrinaire about their shot distributions. As long as the ball zips around the perimeter and nothing is forced, weak spots will be located and pushed upon. If the Heat overplay Tatum, the Celtics are naturally set up to figure out what opportunity that tactical choice presents and make their opponents pay. This is why the Celtics have been such a fun team to watch. If you can get over the name on the jersey and the people rooting for the team, which is maybe a hard ask so I won’t begrudge anyone for the chalk take of Fuck those guys, you will get to enjoy the team playing the most harmonious basketball in the playoffs. You will get to enjoy the Marcus Smart Experience.