2022 NBA Finals: Why Marcus Smart may hold the key Celtics to winning Banner 18

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·4 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Tomase: Why Marcus Smart holds the key to Celtics winning Banner 18 originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The book is out on the Celtics, and it's by no means surprising: double team Jayson Tatum, blitz Jaylen Brown, and make someone else beat you.

That someone else, as often as not, is Marcus Smart. And how he reacts with the ball in his hands and open shots in front of him may very well decide the 2022 NBA Finals.

At this point, Smart isn't so much a lightning rod as the Museum of Science's giant Van de Graaf generator -- a theater of electricity unto himself. The Defensive Player of the Year is a foundational player, but for every time he hounds an opposing ball handler, manhandles a power forward out of the post, or delivers a pinpoint alley-oop to Robert Williams, there's a shot that makes you go, "Why!?"

2022 NBA Finals preview: Three reasons why Celtics can beat Warriors

Head coach Ime Udoka noted after the C's eliminated the Nets that Smart reminds him of Hall of Famer Manu Ginobili, a mercurial talent who periodically irritated Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich with his reckless flights of fancy.

"You live with those moments because most of the time he's going to make the right play," Udoka said. "You know he's going to gamble at times and burn you, but more often than not, he'll make the right play."

In Sunday's Game 7 victory over the Heat, Smart tried ... repeatedly ... to deliver the knockout blow. Between making two free throws that gave the Celtics a 13-point lead with a little over three minutes left and then two more that finally sealed it in the closing seconds, Smart missed a jumper, a layup, and three 3-pointers -- many early in the shot clock, which allowed the Heat to mount one final, furious rally.

That two-minute stretch has left Celtics fans feeling understandably uneasy about Smart's willingness to sacrifice his own offense for the sake of ball movement in crunch time. They also know how unstoppable the Celtics can be when Smart acts as facilitator first and scorer second, with no moment better highlighting his growth than the pass to a cutting Tatum to beat the Nets at the buzzer of Game 1.

That's the Smart we trust most: the floor general who views every double team as an opportunity to attack a scrambling defense. When he settles for jumpers or steps into a semi-contested 3-pointer, it invariably feels like the Celtics left a better shot on the floor.

They can't afford that against the Warriors, who love to put defenses on their heels, especially at home. Nothing plays into Golden State's ability to drain transition 3's like a long rebound, and Smart's misses aren't traditionally of the gentle variety.

That said, there's a balance. The Celtics are actually 6-1 this postseason when Smart takes at least 15 shots, and 4-4 when he doesn't. When Tatum makes the right pass out of a looming double and finds Smart for a wide-open 3, Smart taking and making it encourages Boston's first-team All-NBA star to play unselfishly.

The problem is taking a good shot when a great one is available. The first 3-pointer Smart missed late on Sunday night came with Victor Oladipo racing out to contest, leaving Al Horford all alone in the lane. Another followed a Brown drive and kick to Horford, who swung it to Smart on the wing. With the Heat rotating, two more passes would've found Grant Williams in his corner office while also draining precious seconds, but Smart let it fly, and then the Celtics held on for dear life.

Now comes an opportunity to reset in advance of Thursday's Game 1. Smart will expend considerable energy chasing Stephen Curry through a thicket of screens. His primary responsibility will be disruption. The Warriors remain miffed over Smart's dive for a loose ball that cost Curry the final 12 games of the regular season, but that's exactly how Smart needs to play in the Finals.

On the other end, the Celtics will target Curry in pick-and-rolls to make the 34-year-old defend. Smart will need to take open 3's to keep the Warriors honest, but too many of them will let Curry off the hook.

What really matters is the fourth quarter, and what really, really matters is the final five minutes. That's when Smart must curtail his instinct to play hero. The ball will be in his hands and the shot will be there. Can he fight the urge to take it?

He's this close to etching his name into Celtics lore, and his best chance of getting there will be making the play that allows someone else to shine.