Damian Lillard stands behind Marcus Smart with his hands wide and raised to his sides

Marcus Smart Is Doing Quite a Bit of Talking with His Defense

Marcus Smart’s ear has been to the floor.

He has heard the talk – even if it was just a whisper – that after missing nearly six weeks with a left calf tear, his all-world defensive abilities had taken a slide. And he’s taking those thoughts personally.

Let Tuesday night serve as a reminder that Smart’s defense remains as great as ever.

Smart played a critical role in Boston’s 116-115 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers by owning a defensive assignment against All-Star point guard Damian Lillard. Smart played a major role in limiting Lillard to just 39.1 percent shooting overall during the contest – five percentage points below his season average – on a game-high 23 shot attempts. Lillard shot 2-for-5 and made only one shot outside the paint, all while committing two turnovers, while Smart was his primary defender.

Despite the success, Smart did not brag about his defensive impact following the game. After all, Lillard did still manage to score 28 points to go along with a game-high 10 assists. Smart did, however, let it be known that his future defensive matchups are in for a nightmarish experience.

“Just getting started,” he stated boldly, after being asked if he’s making a push to remind the league of how impactful he can be at the defensive end. “Just getting started to getting back to where I was and proving to people and letting people know not to forget who I am on that defensive end and what I do, being a two-time All-Defensive First Teamer.”

Smart then dove into those whispers he had heard since his return to the lineup on March 11.

“I’ve heard it,” he said, with an irked tone in his voice. “I’ve heard the talks about the injury probably affecting me, I lost a step, all kinds of things. It is what it is. I know what I can do and my teammates know what I can do and the league knows what I can do, and that’s just extra motivation for me to go out there and prove it.”

Smart shouldn’t need to prove anything given his track record. He has been one of the top on-ball defenders in the league since the moment he stepped into the NBA, and he was finally selected to the All-Defensive First Team during each of the last two seasons. He may not have been defending at that same level following his return from injury this season, but as his coach Brad Stevens explained after Tuesday’s win, Smart shouldn’t have been expected to do so.

“He just missed [six] weeks with an injury,” Stevens said. “It’s hard to come back and be yourself after that, especially when you’re on a minutes restriction and then you’re off, and you’re gonna have some ups and downs.”

The downs appear to be out of Smart’s system at this point. He has looked entirely like himself of late and his defense has played a significant role in Boston winning eight of its last 11 games. His stretch of impactful defense continued Tuesday night against one of the most lethal offensive weapons in the league in Lillard.

“Tonight, I thought he guarded Lillard a well as anybody I’ve seen as far as handling those screens,” Stevens explained. “A couple of the shots Lillard made were not on him and weren’t certainly due to him. I thought he impacted [Lillard] as well as you possibly could.”

For what it’s worth, Smart admitted that doing so was not the simplest of tasks.

“With Dame, he’s such a great player, you have to respect every aspect: his ability to get to the line, his ability to shoot the ball with range, his ability to get to the cup,” Smart explained of the assignment. “And you’ve just got to stay solid.”

He continued, “He’s going to hit some of those tough shots, and for me it was just not getting down when he does hit those tough shots, and just continue to fight and work and extra effort and continue to fight over screens and not let myself just die on those screens and let him get those clean looks.”

Very rarely did Lillard find a clean look Tuesday night against Smart. Boston’s defensive stopper swarmed with the type of effort, skill and instincts that have buoyed the team’s overall defense over the last few seasons.

As hopeful as some outside of Boston may have been that those abilities had eroded, they are very much present, and they are very much making a difference.

Smart heard the whispers. There's no doubt about that. Now he’s talking back with his play.

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