Celtics Hope Smart's Return Will Spark Defensive Turnaround
WALTHAM, Mass. - The Boston Celtics experienced significant defensive slippage before the All-Star break, but they expect to regain their footing on that end of the floor during the final stretch of the season, beginning Friday night in Detroit.
Why are they so confident that they'll be able to right the ship defensively? Because their top lockdown defender, Marcus Smart, will be back on the floor after an 11-game absence that was a result of a right hand laceration.
"We're definitely going to be better defensively," fellow reserve Marcus Morris claimed Thursday afternoon following practice at the team's training facility. "That's [Smart's] best attribute to this team. He's a great defender, so I think he's going to help."
Boston's defense was anything but great during Smart's absence. The C's went 6-5 without him while posting a 105.2 defensive rating, compared to a 99.8 defensive rating prior to his injury. They lost three straight games - all at home - before the break, including two straight contests during which they allowed more than 120 points to the opposition. During their previous 57 games, the C's had not once allowed their opponent to score more than 118 points.
"I was devastated," Smart said of watching his team struggle defensively during his absence. "Just from the fact that I couldn't even get out there and do anything to help. And the fact that we know what we were supposed to do. We know how to play basketball. We did it 53 games straight. But, there's no excuses. The games we lost, those teams came ready. We didn't. We've gotta finish the second half strong."
One of the reasons why Boston's defense hasn't been as strong of late is because it has lacked enough guard depth to defend the perimeter consistently. The returns of both Smart and Shane Larkin - who is hoping to play within the next week after missing a month due to right knee soreness - should help them immensely in that department.
"If you look at one of the areas where we were not as good over the last couple of weeks, it's just simply ball pressure," said coach Brad Stevens. "And that's two-fold. No. 1 is that [Smart] and Shane are very good at it. And No. 2 is that you have even less depth to do it (without them). So, it's hard to ask, like if Kyrie (Irving) is going to play 38 minutes per game, you can't expect him to pressure the ball the way that we would ultimately like to with more depth."
Irving is relieved to have Smart back because it will alleviate some of the pressure off of his shoulders.
"He just adds a very unique understanding to the game on both ends of the floor," the All-Star point guard said of his backup. "He'll be able to break down the defense and create opportunities for not just himself, but the rest of us. We all know how great he is defensively. What he adds to our team is great. It's unmatched."
Smart returned to practice for the first time Wednesday evening. After the two-hour session, both Brad Stevens and Al Horford said that the team's energy level was significantly higher, largely because of Smart's added presence.
"He was excited to be back," said Horford. "And there's no question that having Marcus back makes our defense a lot better."
Smart was unable to practice Thursday because of a minor left quad contusion, but Stevens said he should be ready to play Friday night when Boston take on the Pistons at Little Caesars Arena.
With his return, the C's should be able to turn things around defensively, just in time for the final stretch of the regular season.