Forsberg: Marcus Smart has quieted his doubters as Celtics' true PG originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
MIAMI - If there are any Marcus Smart doubters remaining in the region, they are surely laying low this morning.
After sitting out Game 1 with a mid-foot sprain suffered in Boston's Game 7 triumph over the Milwaukee Bucks, Smart returned Thursday night to log a team-high 40 minutes, 18 seconds of court time. He scored 24 points on 22 shots (getting hot late after a rusty start). Smart provided a quarter of Boston's 20 triples while flirting with a triple double (12 assists, nine rebounds).
More notable: Smart accounted for 30 of Boston's 64 total assist points. Among his 12 helpers were six 3-point assists, including five above-the-break triples. Five more of his assists led to buckets near the rim.
Smart committed only one turnover, which occurred when he stepped out of bounds after stripping Victor Oladipo.
Celtics-Heat takeaways: Marcus Smart does it all in Game 2 return
A season that started with naysayers wondering if Smart could be the point guard of Boston's future has Smart doing everything he can to will the Celtics to the NBA Finals.
"A lot of pride. That's what I've been doing my whole career," Smart said when asked about convincing people he could thrive in the point guard role. "That's what I got drafted here to do. I just waited my turn.
"I'm blessed to be in the situation I am, to have the opportunity to go out and show what I can do, and I think everybody in the organization, in the world is seeing what I can do at that point guard position."
It's hard to keep Smart off the court, so he morphed into Coach Smart when his foot injury wouldn't allow him to play in Game 1. Smart tried his best to steer his teammates back on course when they got wayward in the third quarter that night.
But Boston didn't find its way until Smart was actually out there Thursday. He took stress off Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown with his steady playmaking, and he added another body capable of defending Jimmy Butler.
After Butler dominated the third quarter in Game 1 -- and tried for a repeat performance in Game 2 -- Smart limited him to nine points over 31 possessions, per Second Spectrum tracking. Smart wasn't perfect and Butler still had an efficient night, but Smart made him work for everything.
"It's tough. Jimmy is a warrior, man," said Smart. "Jimmy has been doing this for a long time. He understands the game. He understands his strengths. He understands his team's strengths. So when you have a guy who has an IQ like Jimmy, it's always going to be a tough matchup. It's a good one.
"I love going up against Jimmy any time I can. As a defensive player, as a competitor, he's going to make you work and he's going to make you better. We knew it was tough. For me my assignment was just to make everything tough for him. We knew he was going to hit some shots. If he did, he had to work for where them. That's just where I came in."
Most of Smart's defensive work won't end up on his highlight reel. His crossover that left old friend Max Strus stumbling backwards will. So too will Smart's crosscourt, falling-out-of-bounds dish that threaded about four white jerseys to find Jaylen Brown for a 3-pointer on Boston's first bucket. And then there was a third-quarter baseline drive with Bam Adebayo attached to his hip that Smart lofted over the corner of the basket -- Larry Bird style -- and splashed it for an and-one.
Smart was simply brilliant on both ends. He set the defensive tone, he quarterbacked the offense, and he tossed in some scoring for good measure. If not for his high minute total, coach Ime Udoka would have likely left him out there to finish off the triple-double.
Even Butler had no choice but to tip his cap.
"Look, he's key to what they do over there on both sides of the floor, actually, and for sure when he's making shots," said Butler. "But, as a Defensive Player of the Year, night in, night out, taking that matchup and being able to play on both sides of the ball, that's crucial for them …
"You have to respect him and what he does."
Smart's stat line when he plays in the game immediately after a loss this postseason is staggering: 21 points per game on 47.1 percent shooting from the field and 50 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. He's averaged nine assists, 5.3 rebounds, one steal, and one block in those three games. He's plus-43 overall in his floor time, including plus-31 on Thursday night.
In one of the ultimate signs of leadership, Smart goes up a level whenever Boston puts itself in a tough spot. His ability to thrive in this role should not be questioned any longer.
In one of the ultimate signs of leadership, Smart goes up a level whenever Boston puts itself in a tough spot.
His ability to thrive in this role should not be questioned any longer.
Smart owned a plus-13.7 net rating while logging just over half his total minutes this season as the lone point guard, per Cleaning the Glass tracking. That mark ranked in the 99th percentile among all point guards and the Celtics' offensive rating rocketed to 119 with Smart the primary ball-handler.
The numbers continue a career-long trend of Smart thriving when given the keys to the car. Smart has always had an All-Star ball-handler in front of him, from Isaiah Thomas to Kyrie Irving to Kemba Walker. Even this year he had to navigate clunky two-point-guard lineups with Dennis Schroder early in the season.
But the keys came his way in January and the Celtics launched. There are other factors, but Smart's two-way play has certainly been a key ingredient.
"As always, he sets the tone," said Udoka. "Defensive Player of the Year for a reason. Ability to switch and switch on to bigger bodies and just another good defender to throw at Butler, [Bam] Adebayo, some of those guys and not have to worry about them trying to pick on certain matchups. So he brings the physicality every night, kind of gets everybody else in line and adding Al [Horford] back there, as well, is another versatile guy.
"Wasn't surprising to see how well we guarded with our guys back."
And it's not surprising any more to see Smart thriving as the clear-cut point guard of the future for the Celtics.