Without Smart, C's Perimeter 'D' Falters in Brooklyn
BROOKLYN – The Celtics on Saturday learned that they will be without Marcus Smart for at least the next two weeks due to a lower left leg injury.
One day later in Brooklyn, after falling 111-101 to the Nets, they learned that it will be much more difficult to win games during that stretch without the services of their game-changing guard.
Smart is this team’s defensive leader, its main force on the perimeter. He shadows the opposition’s top perimeter threat and shuts down guard penetration each and every night.
Those assignments fell on the shoulders of Smart’s capable teammates Sunday evening. However, they failed to deliver.
Brooklyn scored 111 points on 50.6 percent shooting at the Barclays Center. Much of the Nets’ offense, be it via points in the paint or via jumpers, came off of penetration by their guards.
“They did a great job attacking us, let’s put it that way,” a visibly bothered Brad Stevens said of Brooklyn’s offensive penetration. “We were not in their vicinity sometimes.”
Or, more accurately, many times. As a result, the Nets had a field day at the offensive end.
All four of the team’s premier ballhandlers (Jarrett Jack, Shane Larkin, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Joe Johnson) tallied at least four assists on the night. When they took the ball off the dribble, Boston’s guards were either a step too slow or a moment too late, which led to far too many uncontested shots for Brooklyn.
“Letting (Shane) Larkin and (Jarrett) Jack play with the ball like that and make those seam passes to (Brook) Lopez and (Andrea) Bargnani just got those guys going,” said Stevens.
As Evan Turner later added, “Once you let them get going, it’s hard to stop them.”
They, the Nets, never even got started Friday night at TD Garden, when Smart logged 21 minutes and helped to harass Brooklyn’s perimeter players into an ugly performance. The Nets shot only 39.3 percent from the floor during that contest while committing 20 turnovers, seven of which came off the hands of Jack.
It isn’t realistic to say that having Smart available Sunday night would have changed everything – it wouldn’t have – but it is fair and accurate to say that the Celtics regressed drastically at the defensive end without him.
Stevens calls Smart an “energy-giver.” His mere presence lifts teammates to higher levels of play, particularly at the defensive end of the floor.
That energy isn’t going to be around for the next couple of weeks, at the very least, and the Celtics need to figure out how to make up for its absence. In short, other guys are going to need to step up.
Avery Bradley is going to need to assume a larger role at the defensive end, which he is quite accustomed to. Over the past two seasons, Smart has taken the role of ‘shutdown defender’ away from Bradley in order to allow Bradley to conserve more energy for the offensive end. Now, that responsibility of being the team’s shutdown defender is back on Bradley’s shoulders.
Following Friday’s loss, Turner also pointed to rookie point guard Terry Rozier as a candidate to step up. Rozier possesses many of the same qualities as Smart – he’s tough, he’s gritty, he’s competitive and he’s quick – but he hasn’t gotten much of an opportunity this season. He received five minutes of playing time Sunday night but struggled. Larkin had his way with the rook, notching two points and two assists while setting Brooklyn’s offense into motion during that stretch of action.
While Bradley and Rozier are the prime candidates to step up, the responsibility of covering Smart’s absence will not fall squarely on them. This will need be a team effort.
“We’ve got to have that next-man-up mentality,” Jared Sullinger said. “And for us to win, we’re going to need everybody in here.”
Everybody must be better than they were Sunday night in Brooklyn. If they aren’t, we’ve already seen the type of results that will follow. The margin of error in this league is just too thin.
The good news for Boston is that it has multiple players who are capable of stepping up at the defensive end in Smart’s absence.
They failed to do so Sunday night in Brooklyn, as the Nets’ perimeter players led their team to a surprising victory, but maybe that result will serve as a lesson well learned for the C’s as they navigate through Smart’s absence.