Boston has lost the conference crown, its defensive identity and four of its last five games in Marcus Smart’s absence.
After two wobbly games to begin the season, Boston Celtics caught fire reeling off 16 straight wins which is yet to be broken this season despite several tries by Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.
Clinching the league leading mark was done without the service of free agent signing Gordon Hayward who is out for the season with a gruesome ankle and leg injury.
Playing without Hayward and easily slotting fellow newbie Kyrie Irving into its system has surprised many in the league without sacrificing the progress made last season with Isaiah Thomas as the lead Guard.
However, with All Star Weekend near, the Celtics have limped to the season’s official midpoint in need of a break from an unforgiving schedule that has made them play the most back to back games in the league. There was also the game against Philadelphia Sixers outside the US where the team crossed the Atlantic to London to see out the game.
It helps Boston will have fewer back to back games in the remainder of the season opening more practice avenues for Coach Brad Stevens to sharpen his plays. Fatigue and close misses like the one against Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center have played a role in Boston’s four losses in five games heading to the All Star game.
The Celtics have battled and come out on top facing such issues previously but they are failing to make it this time around due to the absence of Marcus Smart. The former Oklahoma State University product has been an integral part of Boston’s rise to lead the Eastern Conference last season and for long periods this season.
Up until a few days ago, Boston led the conference until a rash of losses and a seven game Toronto Raptors winning run has turned the tables.
Toronto leads the conference with All Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry leading the way for Canada’s sole NBA franchise.
Since Smart sustained deep cuts after punching a picture frame, Boston has lost the conference crown, its defensive identity and four of its last five games. Forever plagued by his temperament, Smart unleashed his frustration on a hotel frame after missing a potential game winning three point shot.
Despite averaging nine points this season, Smart’s influence in Boston’s play is immense as his hyper activity on defense stymies opposing teams while saving the likes of Kyrie a lot of energy to unleash on offense. Smart’s thick 6 foot 4 inch frame allows him to guard players in the backcourt as well as Forwards. As great as Irving has been in New England, the team’s defense has been the backbone to its successful season.
However, that has been missing in the past couple of games as Boston allowed Cleveland to score 121 points on Paul Pierce’s Jersey Retirement Night. Losing to Cleveland who have the game’s best player LeBron James is no shame but losing to a side that shipped out six players and received four in various trades 48 hours before is far from ideal. Two days after that loss, Boston lost to Los Angeles Clippers while giving up 129 points in another loss; DeAndre Jordan scored a career high 30 points. The Clippers played the game after trading its best player Blake Griffin and should ideally be rebuilding. It is not a farfetched idea to believe had Smart been around both games would not have ended the way they did.
After all, the Celtics have played better and tougher opponents and came out on the winning end with Smart not touching the ball yet decisive in those wins. A prime example was in a key matchup against Houston Rockets where Rockets Guard James Harden had the chance to force overtime but turned the ball over after committing an offensive foul on Smart. The Celtics Guard played tough defense on Harden forcing the latter to vent his frustration illegally and gift Boston the win in the process.
Simple things that don’t necessarily show up on stat sheets yet critical to win games typifies Marcus Smart’s play and Coach Stevens comments point out how vital Smart’s defense helps the team. “His injury has put the team in a tough situation” he said after losing to Clippers. Set to return after the All Star Break, Boston has the rest of this season to place full value on Smart’s qualities when contract talks begin.
The team is yet to pick up his six million dollar contract for next season before he becomes a restricted free agent in 2019. While his future remains up in the air, Marcus Smart’s importance in the presence cannot be understated.
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah
@YawMintYM on Twitter