BOSTON (CBS) -- The Marcus Smart experience has been in full effect this season. The Celtics point guard is amazingly fascinating one night as he does all the dirty work in a win, and wildly inconsistent and frustrating the next.
It's a roller coaster we've been on for eight years, a ride that most accept a seat on a few nights every week. But given Smart's ability to swing one's mood like a pass around the top of the key, it's an act that can grow thin at times. And with Marcus tasked with being Boston's starting point guard this season, he's become an even easier scapegoat when things don't go right for the Green.
And for much of the season things have not gone right for the Celtics. A slow start to the season saw them play down to inferior opponents and either lose their winnable games, or have to go down to the wire against the bottom dwellers of the NBA. Boston had very few blowouts early in the year, and they lost a lot more close games than they won. There was no cohesion with the group and they fell apart in the biggest moments.
A lot of the blame was aimed at Smart, who was supposed to be the floor general of the team. For much of the first half of the season, a large faction of fans wanted to see Smart traded when he was eligible to be dealt late last month, even after he signed a four-year extension over the offseason.
That concept is laughable at the moment, with Smart not only playing his best ball of the season, but potentially of his career. In his five games since returning from a COVID-19 absence, Smart has been doing everything the Celtics have needed him to: Quarterback the offense, stifle the opposition on defense, and lead by example.
Smart has been the steadying leader that Boston has needed over the last week, and Monday night was perhaps his finest example. In Boston's blowout win over the Heat, Smart scored 16 points off 6-for-9 shooting, canning four of his seven threes, to go with seven assists. He turned the ball over just once and was a plus-25 in his 28 minutes of action during the C's 122-92 victory over the undermanned Heat.
The Heat are a zone-heavy team, and the Celtics struggle when hit with that defense. Boston has the shooters and the slashers to bust a zone, they just don't do it for whatever reason. But Smart made it a point to put some cracks in the Miami D early Monday night; just look at this beautiful feed to Robert Williams for the game's first hoop:
The Celtics jumped out to a big lead Monday, but let the Heat claw their way back in the second quarter with an 18-3 run. When Miami tied it 32-32 midway through the quarter, Ime Udoka took a timeout and let his team hear it. His message, according to Smart, was to "stop dicking around."
Smart took it to heart and led Boston on an important 5-0 run. Out of the timeout, he fed Jaylen Brown for a three to put the Celtics back on top. A few seconds later, Smart stepped in front of a bad pass from Max Strus and drove the court for an easy deuce. It was one of his two thefts on the evening.
It was only five points, but it was an important stretch for the Celtics. Earlier this year, Boston would have let that Miami run keep ballooning, until any hope for a C's win popped. That was not the case on Monday. After Brown hit a nice fadeaway to make it a 7-0 Boston run, it was the Heat who were forced to call a timeout. But the Celtics kept their foot on the gas, and took a nine-point lead into halftime.
Boston really pulled away in the third quarter, outscoring Miami 40-25 in the frame, and Smart, Brown (who finished with 29 points) and Jayson Tatum (20 points) once again got to watch most of the fourth quarter of a blowout from the bench.
Smart's passing was contagious on Monday, as Boston assisted on 24 of its 44 field goals. Six players scored in double digits as the team won for the ninth time in its last 13 games.
Since returning from his COVID absence, Smart has averaged 9.8 points off 51 percent shooting to go with 6.8 assists and 1.8 steals per game. It's no coincidence that the team has started to play so well as Smart has rounded into form as the starting point guard. It's come at a great time, too, as this is usually the time of the year when Tatum brings his game to another level.
"I love every last bit of it," Smart said after Monday's win. "Especially with the adversity we've been dealing with this whole season, the ups and downs, not being consistent. So for us to finally start to make that walk in the right direction is big for us confidence-wise, team-wise, individually-wise. It's something that we needed and it's happening at the right time for us.
"We just got to continue it," he added.
That has been the issue for the Celtics this year. Whenever they climb a peak, they stumble into a valley. But maybe now that they've had four months in Udoka's system (and the coach has had four months to figure things out in his first year on a bench) and Smart has seemingly put it together as the team's starting point guard, there is reason for optimism.
It puts Brad Stevens in a precarious position with the trade deadline just over a week away. The C's president of basketball ops. seems set on getting the team under the luxury tax, so he won't be adding much of anything if it puts more money on the books. And to this point, the Celtics haven't given him much reason to invest in this team.
But if anything has been made clear over the last week, it's that now is not the time to deal away Smart. The Celtics have found their groove, and a lot of it has to do with Smart finding his way as the team's floor general.
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