Marcus Smart competes for the ball against Philadelphia 76ers guard Nik Stauskas (11) late in the game at TD Garden. (David Butler II/USA Today Sports)
Danny Ainge watched this week as the Raptors made a big push to re-claim their position atop the Eastern Conference with Cleveland when they acquired forward Serge Ibaka from the Magic.
But what the Celtics’ President of Basketball Operations has also watch is the emergence of one of his own players into a legit force on the team that has pushed its way past Toronto in the East and sits just two games back of Cleveland in the East.
What Marcus Smart has done in the last two weeks has been eye-opening.
In Boston’s 11-1 run to second place in the East and first in the Atlantic Division, Smart is averaging 12.3 points, 5.4 assists, four rebounds and an eye-popping 2.3 steals a game. Of course, that last number got a huge bump Wednesday night with eight swipes against the Sixers in a 116-108 win at TD Garden.
A 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio is considered good, and that’s exactly what Smart is averaging in the 12-game run, with 2.7 turnovers per game. But throw in his steals and it’s nearly 3-to-1. That’s sensational. Consider that the OPS-plus of basketball.
“I’ve been really trying to elevate my game especially going into the second half trying to keep the momentum alive,” Smart said after Wednesday’s win. “I can honestly say this is the most comfortable I have been in a Celtic uniform. It feels good, not only for myself but to be able to contribute to this team in other ways. It’s definitely something I will continue to try and keep doing.”
If there was a singular play that defines Smart’s play over the last two weeks it was his jumping on Nik Stauskas when Stauskas lost his dribble 20 feet from the basket with three minutes left and the Celtics up, 106-101. He seized the opportunity to grab the ball, which he did for his seventh steal, and fed Jae Crowder for the game-sealing lay-up.
“I saw the ball and went after the ball,” Smart said. “He just happened to be in the way of it.”
“I thought Smart was fantastic. I thought Smart has really strung a bunch of games together here. Made big shots, made timely shots, but then defensively was terrific,” Brad Stevens said. “I think the last couple of weeks have been some of his best basketball. And we needed it. We’re down a couple of bodies and he is playing at a high level on both ends of the floor.
“I think the ankle sprain at the start of the year was kind of an unfortunate kick-off to the year; it set you back a little bit. And then in the last few weeks I just think, like, he’s really found a rhythm and a groove. And it started on the defensive end with guarding at a really high level. I think he’s guarding even better than he did at the start of the year and he’s been good. We need him to, again. We’re down Jaylen (Brown) and down Avery, you’ve got to have those perimeter defenders step up for you.”
With Isaiah Thomas setting all sorts of new franchise scoring marks (now averaging 29.8 points for the season), it would be easy to overlook Smart. But Smart’s efforts in the last week have been the backbone behind Thomas’ sensational season. With Smart locking opponents down defensively, Thomas has been freed up a bit to focus mainly on making sure the Celtics keep scoring at a frenetic pace.
Ainge has a decision to make. Does he want to make a deal in the days leading up to the Feb. 23 deadline to give the Celtics a better chance at making a run at Cleveland? What pieces on his current roster could help him make such a deal? Forgetting, for a moment, the first-round picks the Celtics have in their draft bank, there likely would have to be some legitimate talent swapping places.
This brings us to Avery Bradley. When healthy, Bradley is still considered one of the best on-ball defenders in the NBA. He’s a reigning first-team defensive player. He has one more year left on an extremely team-friendly four-year, $32 million deal. Bradley has also shown this year a significant jump in his offensive production, averaging 17.7 points, 6.9 rebounds and a career-best 40.9 percent from 3-point range.
He has also missed 15 straight games with a sore right Achilles and 20 of Boston’s first 56 games this season. Add to the fact that the Celtics have not missed his scoring while he’s been out and the temptation gets stronger.
If ever the Celtics were going to deal Bradley for a potential haul coming back the other way, this is it. The Celtics are primed for a run at the Cavs and have the pieces to do it. Whether it’s Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins, Carmelo Anthony or Andre Drummond, the Celtics have the capital.
The downside, of course, is that you lose the flexibility of putting Smart and Bradley on the court at the same time if you need defensive pressure to turn around a game. That’s something the Celtics don’t really have right now and something considered crucial come springtime. But that might be something Ainge figures Stevens could easily coach around and plan for in the final two months.
Marcus Smart, considered the heart and soul of the Celtics locker room even more than Thomas, is going nowhere at the deadline. He’s playing his best basketball in a Celtics uniform and Terry Rozier, Gerald Green and an emerging James Young are on the bench in reserve.
The very real possibility exists that Avery Bradley has played his last game in a Celtics uniform. The next week will be a fascinating one to watch.
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