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January 22, 2023

SAN FRANCISCO — What Marcus Smart aims to do to the Golden State Warriors is what opponents have been able to do for years to the Boston Celtics point guards.

“I would probably describe him as a lion on the prowl,” Smart said. “These are the hunted. We are the hunters right now. So for me, I’m just out, I’m stealthy, biding my time to strike and my opportunity.

This is Smart’s eighth NBA season, but first as Boston’s starting point guard and big-cat game hunter. Moving him there is a huge reason the Celtics were able to reach the NBA Finals, and the defense is so good because of it that they have a great chance of winning it all.

Thinking back to the Celtics’ past teams with Smart on the roster, they haven’t been so lucky. Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker — Boston’s top playmakers dating back to 2017, when the current Celtics’ core first reached an Eastern Conference final — were so poor defensively but so good with the ball in their hands they needed to be on the pitch, making those teams vulnerable.

Opponents, Warriors included, can’t take advantage of these Celtics. Smart, at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, is too big, fast and physical to be chased by anyone. And he’s got an NBA Defensive Player of the Year award to prove it. Boston has two rim protectors in starters Robert Williams III and Al Horford, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are strong defensemen as well.

Smart’s versatility creates a scenario where the Celtics can switch to any position on the floor and guard the perimeter and the lane. There is no individual confrontation in which they can be exploited. It’s no wonder they were the highest-rated defense in the NBA during the regular season and remain No. 1 in the playoffs.

Marcus Smart has the versatility to cover guard Seth Curry or the Warriors big men. (Kyle Terada / USA Today)

“There was always someone on the court for us that we had to cover,” Smart said. “Somebody would always go after the guy we had that we always had to help, and that would put a strain on our defence.”

Smart was never a great shooter, nor had he been elevated in the pecking order of offensive options for the Celtics’ former teams. When Boston upended its coaching staff and front office, moving Brad Stevens from coach to vice president of basketball operations and hiring Ime Udoka as coach, installing Smart as the starting point guard was another risk.

The first returns were terrible. Boston was stuck in neutral for the first few months of the season, idling outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture until mid-January.

“I know it may be hard to believe,” Smart said, “but I was even more confident in those first two months, just because I knew everything was new.”

He applauded the Celtics for sticking to their lineups with him as the starting point guard, and he rewarded them.

Smart averaged 12.1 points during the regular season. His .418 shooting percentage was the second best of his career and he set a career mark with 5.9 assists per game. In the playoffs, when healthy enough to be on the court, he was brilliant offensively, scoring 15.7 points with 6.1 assists and shooting .345 from 3-point range. That’s 3 more points per game than he gave Boston during the regular season.

Smart scored 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting, with 4-of-7 shooting, in Boston’s 120-108 win over Golden State in Game 1.

All of this is remarkable because in past playoffs, especially in the all-important games, opponents have forced Smart to fire. And he couldn’t deliver. There was the 1 of 10 he shot in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals against Cleveland, and the 14 of 43 he shot in the last three games of the Eastern Conference Finals. 2020 against Miami. He came back from an injury in the second round of 2019 against Milwaukee and shot 1 of 11 in the last two games.

It was the hunt when he had the ball in his hands.

“I’m a smart basketball player. I am an intelligent person. And I knew I was going to find out and this team is going to find out,” Smart said. “Once I was able to take the keys, I had a plan in mind for how I wanted things to go, and I continued to stick to it.”

Don’t kill the Celtics on offense. Turn their defense into a relentless hammer of a weapon. That’s what Smart did this season.

Golden State point guard – you may have heard of it – Steph Curry, scored 34 points in Game 1, with six 3s in the first quarter. He scored just 13 points in the last three frames and finished 12 of 25 shooting. tightened as the match progressed. Smart disrupted the Warriors’ flow by guarding Draymond Green, who can initiate from his forward or center positions, depending on the roster.

The Celtics have the luxury of playing Smart on Green because they don’t have to hide a weaker defender.

“The main thing is that we put Marcus on the big guys throughout the season to get on their toes sometimes,” Udoka said. “It’s something in our back pocket that we feel comfortable doing.”

It’s a trap the Celtics set, and it led to some big kills for Smart, a lion chasing the Warriors.

(Smart top photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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