Season Refresh Chapter: Marcus Smart

After earning his first NBA All-Defensive Team selection last season, Marcus Smart came into this season and somehow took his defense to an even higher level.

The offseason departures of Aron Baynes, Al Horford and Marcus Morris left a massive defensive void in Boston’s frontcourt, which Smart, despite his lack of size, has done a remarkable job in helping to fill.

Right off the bat in the preseason, the 6-foot-3 guard began defending virtually any player on the floor. Following a preseason game against Cleveland in mid-October, during which he guarded five-time All-Star forward/center Kevin Love, Smart declared himself as Boston’s “stretch-6,” which, in essence, meant that he could guard any position, 1 through 5, and beyond.

“I love those types of challenges, especially on a night where my defense is needed,” he said following that exhibition, during which his defense of Love helped to preserve a 119-113 win. “Especially when they made a run and Kevin started going. When I saw the matchup, I was excited for it.”

One of Smart’s greatest defensive efforts of the season came less than one month later while hosting the Dallas Mavericks at TD Garden. That night, the Celtics were going up against the 7-foot-3 “Unicorn,” Kristaps Porzingis, and it was Boston’s 6-foot-3 ‘Cobra’ who got the defensive assignment.

Despite standing a full foot shorter than Porzingis, Smart helped to limit the former All-Star to four points on a 1-of-11 shooting effort, marking his worst performance since an 0-for-11 game against Smart and the Celtics on Dec. 21, 2017. Porzingis attempted to post up Smart three times over the course of the game, but he failed to score on each occasion.

Following the game, Smart issued a memo to all big men who still believed they would be able to take advantage of a height mismatch against him: “Keep it coming. Plain and simple. Keep it coming.”

The bigs have kept it coming, but Smart has yet to back down. Take, for instance, on March 3, when Brooklyn Nets center Jarrett Allen attempted to dunk on Smart and failed miserably. Midway through the first quarter, the 6-foot-11, 243-pound big man thought he had an open lane for a jam, so he rose up for a two-handed tomahawk. However, Smart rose up from the other side of the basket and stuffed Allen emphatically at the rim, before heading up-court while doing Dikembe Mutombo’s signature finger wag.

During halftime of that nationally-televised game, TNT guest analyst and future Hall-of-Fame shooting guard Dwyane Wade stated his belief that Marcus Smart should be this season’s Defensive Player of the Year – an award that has not been won by a guard in 24 years.

“I know that this award is normally a big man’s award, but this year, we need to get back to the Gary Paytons of the world, the Michael Jordans of the world, where guards get the Defensive Player of the Year award,” Wade proclaimed. “What Marcus Smart has done, I mean, you saw him tonight when he met ‘The Fro’ at the rim. He’s fearless. And it’s not just the blocks – it’s the hustle, it’s the diving on the floor for the ball, it’s the switching 1 through 5 that the guy does. So I think he deserves more credit.”

Smart also deserves more credit for the leaps he has made on the offensive end, where he is averaging career highs of 13.8 points and 4.8 assists per game.

In particular, he has excelled in shooting from beyond the arc, despite the criticism he faced earlier in his career regarding his 3-point shooting. Smart made a career-high 128 deep balls in just 53 appearances. Over the course of an 82-game campaign, that would project to 198 3-pointers, which would rank sixth all-time on the Celtics’ single-season list.

Smart even broke the franchise’s single-game 3-point record on Jan. 18, when he canned 11-of-22 from deep to surpass the previous record of nine, which was shared by Antoine Walker and Isaiah Thomas.

Even without his offensive and defensive contributions, Smart would still play a significant role on this team with his voice alone, as the six-year veteran, and longest-tenured member of the team, has established himself as Boston’s undisputed locker-room leader.

Smart’s communication skills should especially come in handy during the next couple of months inside the NBA bubble in Florida, where teams will no longer be able to feed off of the crowd and will instead need to provide their own energy.

“I think he in particular, out of our guys that we really lean on, has a chance to really be that vocal guy for us,” Brad Stevens said ahead of a July 26 scrimmage against the Phoenix Suns. “He’s going to be as important right from the get-go of the game as anybody on our team.”

Combine that vocal leadership with first-class defense and ever-improving offense, and you have yourself an irreplaceable player. There is no one in the NBA like Marcus Smart, as he continues to prove year after year, and the Celtics are so lucky to have him.

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