After losing Marcus Smart for 4-6 weeks due to a partial aversion of the left oblique, questions were raised about the Boston Celtics’ team defense and energy without him. While those questions linger, losing Smart is far from the worst-case scenario.
In the aftermath of the Boston Celtics‘ 84-74 Game 1 win over the Indiana Pacers, Kyrie Irving was asked what his mindset was without Marcus Smart. “I miss Smart. Ah man, I miss him so much,” Kyrie responded, highlighting just how much the defensive stalwart means to this squad.
Smart suffered a partial tear in his left quad during Boston’s penultimate game of the regular season against the Orlando Magic. After making contact with Nikola Vucevic‘s hip, Smart collapsed, clearly in pain, and was eventually helped off of the court. After initial reports seemed optimistic, with hopes that he might even be ready for Game 1 of their first round matchup with the Pacers, an MRI revealed the tear, and the team announced Smart would miss at least four weeks.
The Celtics won’t miss their starting guard and potential First Team All-Defense member for no reason. For one, he should be among the NBA’s top four defensive guards (whether he is a member of the First or Second Team remains a mystery). Ask any team in the league if losing their best defender just in time for the first two rounds of the playoffs is a big deal, and rest assured, the answer will be a resounding yes.
While his defense is an enormous reason for why the Celtics will feel the loss of Smart so heavily, it’s not the only reason, and probably not even the most impactful. There’s no way to quantify it, which is unfortunate for awards season, but Marcus Smart brings an effort, energy and exuberance to every game that simply cannot be replaced.
Kyrie dedicated the Celtics’ Game 1 victory to his friend and backcourt partner, and it certainly felt like it with the way Boston played. Jaylen Brown displayed an effort on the defensive end of the floor that would have brought Smart to tears — of joy, of course — with plays that embodied the effort of Marcus himself.
The Celtics as a team were stymieing defensively, holding the Pacers to only three points during a 22-3 run that opened the second half, while also keeping Indiana from making a field goal for the first eight and a half minutes of the third quarter. Brad Stevens commented that the game looked like a defensive battle from the 1980s.
All of this combined to prove that, while losing Marcus Smart hurts, it is not the worst-case scenario for these Celtics. When the Woj Bomb of Smart’s injury dropped, social media was immediately ablaze with talks of a hopeless Boston team, one that may even fail to get past the Pacers.
No, this is not the darkest timeline. As the Celtics will enter Wednesday with a one-game lead over the Pacers after a defensive masterclass, with a healthy Gordon Hayward and a healthy Kyrie Irving, this is far from the darkest timeline.
Last year’s playoff run by the “Hospital Celtics” garnered plenty of attention for youthful wings that skyrocketed above their development curves in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and a young point guard who was finally coming into his own in Terry Rozier. It prompted expectations of a Celtics team that would rival the Golden State Warriors. While those players have largely failed to live up to the lofty expectations placed upon them, particularly Rozier, the unsung hero of last years playoffs — Marcus Smart — was able to develop even further this season.
He will not be a Most Improved Player finalist. Those honors will be reserved for the likes of Pascal Siakam, D’Angelo Russell and De’Aaron Fox. But, maybe Smart should be among those names, having improved his 3-point shooting by six percent this season while posting a higher percentage inside three feet (69.4 percent) than the career highs of Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook.
Yes, losing a player who has shown such marked improvement while maintaining his defensive production and energy hurts. Of course it hurts. But there are much darker timelines, and much worse scenarios.
Gordon Hayward could shatter his ankle on opening night, for instance. Kyrie Irving could undergo surgery for lingering knee issues, and miss his first playoff run as a Celtic. Al Horford‘s knee tendinitis, which sidelined him for a significant stretch in the early goings of this season, could return to sideline him in these playoffs. These are all worse situations.
Instead, Hayward is healthy. In fact, he’s more than healthy; he’s playing well too. Hayward finished the season with .557/.387/.825 shooting splits since Feb. 1, prompting many to wonder if it’s time he make his return to the starting lineup. Fortunately, the Celtics can continue to ask him to come off the bench, providing a steady hand to guys like Rozier and Marcus Morris, who have seen their games falter of late.
Kyrie Irving is healthy too, and playing the best basketball of his career. Despite being chastised for his lackluster defense as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Irving has shown incredible effort on that end of the floor this year. He posted a career high defensive box plus/minus, while accumulating defensive highlight reels to go with his ever-ethereal offensive skill-set.
Horford is healthy as well. After resting in stretches towards the end of the regular season, his knee held up perfectly fine for the Celtics’ first playoff game of the year, even providing some bounce on the offensive end, where he was a weapon in transition.
“I know how well he’s playing right now. I know how hard he’s worked to get ready for this moment, but injuries are just part of it. Part of what we all have to deal with and it’s an opportunity for someone else. Hopefully we can keep playing so Marcus gets a crack at the playoffs this year.”
That someone else is Jaylen Brown, who finally saw a return to the starting lineup in Game 1. He wasn’t a factor in the game offensively, as he was able to only score a pair of points on an off shooting night, but he more than filled in defensively.
Brown has a tendency to play out of control on the defensive end of the floor, particularly in the half-court. He often misses reads and switches, and the first few minutes of this game were no different. However, after being pulled in favor of Marcus Morris early in the first quarter, Jaylen returned to the game and played some of the most inspired defense of his career.
Marcus Smart’s injury stings, but it’s not the worst thing that could happen. It provides Jaylen with an opportunity to really shine and return to his playoff form of a year ago, and having a healthy Irving and Hayward provides the Celtics with more firepower offensively than they had during last season’s run. Ainge said it best: The Cs just need to play long enough that Smart can get a crack at the playoffs this year. The rest will take care of itself.