MINNEAPOLIS — When Marcus Smart earned the Defensive Player of the Year award last season, it was a celebration while also being a symbol of how dominant the Celtics’ defense played down the stretch. Boston overwhelmed teams and Smart was at the center of it all, barking out instructions to lead the NBA’s best defense.
But amid some defensive struggles for both the Celtics and Smart, the guard was critical of his play this season. The C’s are fourth in defensive rating over the whole season. But they’ve slipped to 15th in the 10 games since the All-Star break, where they’ve put up a 5-5 record.
“It’s mediocre,” Smart said of his defense this season. “We all see it. I see it. It’s tough. You don’t get the same calls as you probably would. It makes it tough for you as a defender — especially with a league that’s very highly, highly offensively oriented where everything is catered to the offensive player. It’s hard to play defense, and especially coming off a DPOY stint. Everything you do is more critiqued.”
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Smart also referenced the “system where there’s no advantage for you as a defender” as scoring is up across the league. Smart said there have been times where the offensive player bulldozes his way into him, yet he’s the one gets called for the foul. Smart detailed those specifics of how difficult it is to play defense currently.
“There’s no advantage,” Smart said. “Soon as you put your body on the offensive player, and all you can do is do it like that, it’s a foul on you, hands fly. It comes to the flopping aspect on the defensive end where you gotta sell it. Just like an offensive player who’s trying to sell a call on offense, you’re trying to sell it on defense because even more on the defensive end, you have no advantage. Everything’s to the offensive guy.”
Smart said injuries have factored into why he called himself mediocre defensively this season. He missed 11 games right before the All-Star break after re-aggravating an old ankle injury form last playoffs. Smart has been back playing, but he re-tweaked the “nagging” ankle injury recently. He said it’s affected him when moving laterally and his explosiveness.
The Celtics have also had some disruptions aside from Smart. Robert Williams III is a crucial piece of their double big lineup that caused the league problems on the way to the NBA Finals. While that lineup has struggled in a small sample size this season, the Celtics’ best version is when they have unlocked that defense.
“He covered up a lot for us, just like any big does,” Smart said of Williams. “When he’s not back there, it makes it a little bit tougher on your defense. We just gotta figure out a way. It’s not going to be perfect. We have lulls, it happens. We just want to be clicking at the right time.”
Regardless, the Celtics and Smart will look to right their struggles with only 13 games left in the regular season. Jaylen Brown noted after the Rockets loss how the C’s need to tighten their defense and rediscover their identity on that end. It’s not as simple as flipping a switch, but the Celtics will look to gain some positive momentum for the next month ahead of the playoffs.
“It’s a long season,” Smart said. “As long as we can get it going before we go to the playoffs, we’re OK. We understand that. It’s not easy. Teams are going to give us their best shot every night.”