Thursday, December 22, 2022

Celtics’ Marcus Smart offers surprising take on latest run: ‘I’m still me’

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Marcus Smart swears nothing has changed. He insists he approaches his job the same way in those last nine games as he did in his first eight.

Though the numbers would suggest otherwise, he sat in the Celtics dressing room late Friday night, tugging at his tailored robe and saying, “I’m still me.”

No one else is up to the task.

But in his last nine games, Smart has been an even better version of the Tasmanian Devil’s favorite NBA point guard. He averaged 5.4 assists in the first eight of the season, despite shooting just 36.4 percent overall and 24.4 percent with 3-pointers. That run culminated in a home win on November 4 against Chicago that put the Celts to a very nice 5-3.

However, starting the next night on the road against the Knicks, Smart went on a nine-game rocket, averaging 8.7 assists while shooting 45.7 percent from the floor and 38.5 percent at Treys (of which he 4.3 per game, 1.2 down from the first eight). The C’s have won eight of those nine and defeated two more, while Smart dealt with an ankle injury and rose to become the league’s best, 15-4.

To explain the change, Smart passes on the credit. (See what we did there?) He says that on that late night flight to New York, there wasn’t a conversation with the coaches or a vision in the sky that resulted in him making 34 assists in the three games that followed.

“No, we just started recording,” Smart told Heavy Sports. “Tonight was also one of those games where I probably could have had 12 assists again (he had five in a 122-104 win over Sacramento). You know we missed some open shots that we usually hit and there are nights like this. But that can’t stop me from doing it.

“Earlier in the year I was still doing that, only like I said we weren’t doing any shots so it was looking bad. It was like, ‘Oh, what is he doing?’ I still wasn’t turning the ball over and was still getting assists, but as we started making shots those assists went up. Then it was like, ‘Oh my god, he’s playing the best basketball of his career.’ No, I just played basketball.”

And Smart’s assist totals may not even be a true measure of his passing abilities. The way he initiates a Celtic offense that features a lot more ball movement can lead to the feed finding the stat sheet. He gets the unrecorded so-called hockey assist.

He also fires more shots after the eye test.

But Smart says: “I always did the extra pass. I’ve always turned down a good shot for a great shot. There are moments like any other, you feel good and you shoot. But you always try to get the best shots possible. I see the ground differently than other people, and I did. Now we’re just doing these recordings and there’s just a little bit more talk about it.”

And there’s the fact that the Celtics are taking more shots in part because EVERYONE seems to be making the extra pass.

“Definitely,” says Smart, “everyone is. And it will take time. We understand our talent and we understand that we can get any shot we want as long as we move the ball. Because of the talent we have, the floor opens up for everyone else and everyone gets something to eat. You know, it’s part of it. We’ve been building on that since I’ve been here nine years ago. You know, JT (Jayson Tatum) and JB (Jaylen Brown) and Al (Horford), this is something we’ve been working on all these years and it’s finally starting to come together and we’re starting to harmonize. ”

Then there’s the Joe Mazzulla factor. The caretaker manager, who appears to be having a hard time dropping the ‘I’ word from his title, has intervened well in a difficult situation following the suspension of Ime Udoka. And at 34, he’s not too far from his own backcourt days.

“Whether Joe was a point guard or not, he’s a great coach,” says Smart. “I don’t think it’s the point guard aspect; I think it’s just about being a great coach and allowing myself to be myself – you know, understanding that everything I do is aimed at winning games. I’m not a selfish person. So I’ll always get it right nine times out of ten. Just allow me to do that, trust me, don’t freak out because I make a bad play or flip the ball or take a shot and miss.

“I think once Coach put his trust in me we saw how it allowed me and this team to thrive. Having a coach who believes in you and allows you to lead the team the way he needs you means everything. And then he’s a point guard, which is just an added bonus because he understands the pressure I have to endure as a point guard to make everyone else happy and sacrifice myself for the team. A lot of people don’t understand that playing that point guard role isn’t about you. You have to sacrifice a lot and you don’t always get credit – but then you get a lot of discredit when something goes wrong. And you gotta understand, it’s like quarterback in football.

“We sacrifice ourselves to get Jaylen, Jayson, Al, D-White the ball and everyone cheers…”

A few feet away, Derrick White hears this, smiles and says, “Yeahhhh.”

To which Smart replies with a laugh, “Shut up.”

Marcus then talks more about surfing, adding, “But when something goes wrong, they look at you and say, ‘Oh, he’s not a point guard. We need a point guard. We need someone to get us this and that.” Well, you didn’t say that when things were going well. Like, calm down. It’s great that a coach doesn’t hear that noise.”

Smart shrug.

“No matter what I do, good or bad — especially bad — it gets blown up, and that’s what it is,” he says. “It’s always been like that for me. But I do not care. I do my job and my job is to win games.”

Looking at the Celtics’ record, now seems like a fairly opportune time to give Marcus Smart a job review.

“I think once Coach put his trust in me we saw how it allowed me and this team to thrive. Having a coach who believes in you and allows you to lead the team the way he needs you means everything. And then he’s a point guard, which is just an added bonus because he understands the pressure I have to endure as a point guard to make everyone else happy and sacrifice myself for the team. A lot of people don’t understand that playing that point guard role isn’t about you. You have to sacrifice a lot and you don’t always get credit – but then you get a lot of discredit when something goes wrong. And you gotta understand, it’s like quarterback in football.

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