Well Jaron Weizmann
FOX Sports NBA Writer

A wide smile stretched Marcus Smartface as he walked through the door. It was the summer of 2021 and he was returning home from a meeting with a new one Boston Celtics head coach Name Udok, who has just told Smart that he will enter next season as the team’s starting quarterback.

“And there was just that confidence and relief in his body language,” recalled Kenny Boren, a Smart High School coach who greeted him that day.

Nearly nine months later, the Celtics remain just two wins away from their first win NBA Performance in the finals since 2010. There is a list of reasons why this year’s team has achieved such success. But the main one is the decision to move Smart to the point.

“I think everyone in the organization – in the world – has seen what I can do in this position as a player,” Smart told reporters after leading the Celtics, scoring 24 points, 12 assists and 9 rebounds. 127-102 knocks with Miami Heath in the 2nd game of the Eastern Conference finals.

Smart has always considered himself a playmaker. “It’s his natural position,” said Vonzel Thomas, AAU Smart coach. Playing for Thomas, Smart has made it a habit to feed teammates whom opponents have left open because, as he told the coach, “If no one passes them a pass, they will think people don’t believe in them.”

Smart played a playmaker in and out of high school in Texas Oklahoma too, but he was never an electric scorer. “He should be one of the few kids named Mr. Texas, not lead his team on points,” Thomas said.

Danny Eing, the former president of the Celtics basketball team, who in 2014 selected Smart in sixth place overall, saw it more as a ballless option. Ange wanted the ball to be in the hands of players who could generate a one-on-one attack. He believed that was how the playoff games were won and, as he told his league colleagues, the skills he valued most.

And that’s why the Celtics spent years exposing teams with short players who shot first. The first came Isaiah Thomas. Then Caire Irving. Then Kemba Walker. The trio helped the Celtics make seven playoff appearances in a row and three appearances in the conference finals over five years. But despite LeBron James Since 2019, the Celtics have failed to make it to the Western Conference and have opened the door for three different Eastern Conference teams to reach the finals.

There was growing concern that they had missed their window.

This offseason the team has regained its lead. Ange walked away. Brad Stevens, his longtime head coach, replaced him at the top of the organization and then nominated Udoku, a longtime player and assistant coach of the NBA, to replace him.

One of Udoka’s first changes was the introduction of a switching protection scheme. To do this, he needed a playmaker who could both slow down the opponent’s dribbles, and fight with big men. The smart, with whom the Celtics signed a four-year contract for $ 77.1 million in the off-season, was perfect.

The defense, which finished the season as the best in the league, quickly rallied. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Smart strangled the ball-handlers at the top of the key and also switched to the big one. The NBA’s crimes are based on the ability to draw two defenders to the ball – either through the screen or by forcing the defense to send another defender to the star – and then create a four-on-three advantage. Having Smart, with its size, speed and ingenuity, as the head of the snake allowed the Celtics to neutralize this strategy.

“One of the things about [Smart] transition to point and Jaylen [Brown] going to two and Jason [Tatum] going to three, we’re huge in these places ” Stevens said in April after Smart was named NBA Defender of the Year. “And so Marcus can use some of his strengths there, and he can still switch and guard everyone else, but it’s nice to have him at the point of attack on the defensive end of the floor.”

The crime, however, was a different story. It came out of the gate awkward and sluggish, and Smart struggled in his new role. The Celtics started the season 25-25. Players pounced on each other at press conferences. Udoka was openly critical of his group. Questions have been raised about the viability of the Tatum-Brown couple with Zach Lowe of ESPN as a reporter covering the NBA. half of the podcast discussing potential Tatum and Brown deals with Jeff Van Gandhi, an NBA № 1 analyst online.

The Celtics seemed to be on the verge of collapse.

The turning point came in early February after Smart returned from a six-game absence and helped the Celtics win eight of nine. The team’s strong game convinced Stevens and Udoka that it was time to part Dennis Schroeder – playing, who shot for the first time, the Celtics signed in the previous offseason – and completely lean towards Smart as the main table cover.

The Celtics’ resentment has begun. In 20 games after the break, “Boston” scored opponents with 122.6 points per 100 possessions, a jump of 12 points and the highest score in the league for this period. The Celtics have become the dominant team at both ends of the field and, having won 26 of their last 32 games, have seized second place in the east.

“I’m not one of those coaches who wants to give up the game every time. I leave it in his hands,” Udoka said of Smart recently. “He usually makes the right decision.”

People who have spent time around Smart and Celtics say they are not surprised. One former assistant coach said former team members felt that Smart made better decisions – and was less likely to make ill-considered shots – while playing for points. The Celtics players told their friends the same thing.

“His greatest strength, in my opinion, has always been his ability to read the ball well and play for others,” said Scott Morrison, who worked as an assistant coach at the Celtics from 2017 to 2021.

Smart, taking on this role, averaged a career-best 5.9 assists per game. He also bounces more often than ever (60.5 assists per game in the playoffs, according to Second Spectrum trackingcompared to 48.8 during last year’s regular season).

This thinking – and the removal of another gunner – shifted more responsibility to Tatum and Brown, who, knowing they were more likely to return the ball and seeing how effective a ping ball could be on the court, became more willing to pass. The Celtics finished the season 10th in terms of gear, which is 15 points compared to the previous year.

“As a playmaker,” Smart said recently, “I take a lot of pressure off our guys so they don’t have to try to force him so hard so they can be who they are.”

No minute better illustrates Smart’s new approach – and the way he lifts the whole team – than the final seconds of the Celtics ’first win in this year’s playoffs. Down for one of the 12 seconds left, they made the jumper miss out Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant. Udoka, refusing to schedule a timeout, urged his players to push the ball up.

For the remaining 3.5 seconds, Smart caught the ball on the left flank with a defender next to him, but a place to hit. Instead, he faked, went to the lane and found the cutting Tatum, who put the ball off the glass just in front of the horn.

“We all thought Smart would shoot,” Tatum said after the game. “Going into this dribble, we just looked each other in the eye. He made a great pass. “

Jaron Weizmann is an NBA writer and author of FOX Sports Climbing to the top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the most daring process in the history of professional sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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