Marcus Smart ought to be in the headlines today for his push for consideration as the Defensive Player of the Year. Instead, he spent the aftermath of Wednesday’s latest defensive masterpiece against the Golden State Warriors having to justify the sort of hustle play that only exemplifies how Smart impacts winning.
No one outside the 415 area code seems to think Smart’s first-half dive to corral a loose ball in which Steph Curry injured his foot was a "dangerous" play, as Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr dangerously put it.
We understand Kerr’s emotional response. The Warriors just spent more than 1,000 days without their star trio of Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green together on the floor. Watching Curry limp off was a gut punch for a team with renewed hopes of another deep playoff run.
Smart didn’t help settle emotions by nearly kicking Thompson trying to prevent a layup soon after the initial pileup. Kerr went ballistic, barked at Smart from the opposing bench, and then continued to lecture him when Smart approached to chat about his concerns.
What’s more disappointing is that, even after getting the opportunity to watch the play, Kerr didn’t fully walk back his criticisms after the game and again suggested it was a "dangerous" play.
So every NBA talking head spent Thursday morning analyzing the sequence even though it typically ends with everyone shrugging their shoulders. Smart and Curry are two of the top five players in the NBA’s loose-ball tracking metric, suggesting they’re as likely as anyone to stick their nose into a pile trying to fetch a 50/50 ball.
Kerr, who didn’t seem to have any issue when Draymond Green launched himself onto the floor with Grant Williams just moments before, could have prevented any lingering overreaction.
His emotions got the better of him.
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It’s even more frustrating because Kerr knows Smart from USA Basketball. A couple years ago, Kerr gushed about how Smart was the best player on the court at the start of Team USA training camp before Smart got injured. Smart volleyed the praise while embracing the opportunity to get coached by Gregg Popovich and Kerr.
Even the emotionally-charged Green didn’t have a problem with the play when asked about it after Wednesday’s game. But search for Smart this morning and it’s him having to defend himself for the suggestion that he’s a dirty player.
Here’s what should be in the spotlight: Smart is spearheading the defense for a Celtics team with the best defensive rating in the NBA at 105.5. Since Smart’s return from a bout with COVID on January 23, that number dips to 101.7, which is 5.2 points per 100 possessions better than the next-closest rival (Miami, 106.9) in that span.
Routinely tasked with defending the opposing team’s most, ahem, dangerous threats, Smart is holding opponents to 44.9 percent shooting, or 0.4 percent below the expected output. That’s not a number that leaps off the page but it’s notable because of the quality of Smart’s defensive assignments.
Smart’s matchup data reflect more glowingly, but even that is a balance. Curry went scoreless against Smart in three minutes of matchup time on Wednesday but did not get credited with a shot against him. (Like his Boston teammates, Smart couldn’t do much to hose off Jordan Poole in that third quarter.) Against the Mavericks, Luka Doncic, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Jalen Brunson were scoreless in nearly nine minutes of total matchup time against Smart (though that trio was credited with just one shot against him).
The on/off splits and eye test might cause you to ponder Robert Williams or even Al Horford as Boston’s best option for Defensive Player of the Year consideration. It is, after all, an award dominated by big men.
Here’s what should be in the spotlight: Smart is spearheading the defense for a Celtics team with the best defensive rating in the NBA at 105.5.Chris Forsberg
But even Robert Williams is quick to suggest Smart deserves the award. With Gary Payton -- the last guard to win the award -- courtside in San Francisco, Jayson Tatum wrapped his arms around Smart during his walk-off interview and declared Smart the Defensive Player of the Year.
"This the Defensive Player of the Year. I know it's been big men lately but they gotta go back to the guards"- @jaytatum0 crashed Marcus Smart's interview with @tvabby to let it be known âï¸ pic.twitter.com/sdXU8UKLMf— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) March 17, 2022
Smart made an impassioned plea last week for consideration. He’s routinely noted how perimeter players don’t get enough credit, particularly guys with versatility to guard multiple positions. Big men get a lot of credit for cleaning up mistakes around the basket but few bigs (not nicknamed Time Lord) can switch onto 1s the way that Smart can handle his own against 5s.
It is Smart’s hustle and willingness to give up his own body to corral a 50/50 ball that ought to highlight his case for DPOY, not hinder it.
Smart expressed dismay that Curry got injured and delicately balanced remorse at the outcome while justifying his play style. Kerr could have taken some heat off of him by walking back his on-court outburst but instead let it linger.
They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Maybe Smart’s hustle will eventually force a national audience to more closely consider his impact this season. How ironic, though, that Smart will spend the immediate aftermath on the defensive.