By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Boston Celtics played a miserable game from top to bottom on Thursday night in Washington DC, but no one on the roster struggled more than Marcus Smart. The 6-foot-4 guard coughed up a career-high eight turnovers in his 25 minutes before Brad Stevens mercifully pulled the plug on his night midway through the fourth quarter.
Six of those miscues came during the first half, helping spark a 22-0 Wizards run in the first quarter that ultimately proved to put the game out of reach for Boston. Smart also shot an ugly 2-of-9 from the field, finishing with 9 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists in the 116-89 Game 3 defeat.
After winning six straight postseason games, the Celtics were due for a bad night, and nearly everyone on the roster delivered on that front at the Verizon Center on Thursday. However, Smart’s offensive woes are a bit more worrisome when you look at them in the bigger context of the series. The 23-year-old’s level of play has dropped considerably since Boston’s first-round series against the Bulls.
In three games against the Wizards, Smart is shooting just 33 percent from the field, 27 percent from 3-point range and 53.8 percent from the free throw line. That type of production wouldn’t be overly concerning for your average bench player, but Stevens is relying on Smart to be far more than that this postseason. Smart is averaging 31.7 minutes per game, the fifth-highest on the roster. That total is particularly high when you consider that Smart pulled himself out of Game 1 against the Wizards for the final several minutes of the fourth quarter.
Washington’s starting five is an explosive offense, particularly at home, where they won 30 games during the regular season and are 4-0 in the postseason. If the Celtics can’t sufficiently slow down the Wizards defensively, something they weren’t able to do in Game 3, they must be able to keep pace with them on offense. Smart’s turnovers (13 in three games) and poor shooting are a major detriment on that front.
Despite Smart’s struggles, Brad Stevens was adamant in his support of the point guard during a Friday conference call with the media.
“Good players all go through tough stretches,” Stevens said. “Ultimately, they find their way out, so I think, at the end of the day, Marcus is a huge part of our team. Marcus knows he’s a huge part of our team. We know he’s a huge part of our team. And we trust he’s going to play great.
“When you’re three games into the second round of the playoffs, somewhere in the 90s (for the season), you’re going to have moments. You focus on what you can do to get a little better, look at what went wrong for you and prepare to play well and with a clear mind in your next game.”
The vote of confidence by Stevens is no real surprise, particularly when you consider the lack of options he has on the bench if Smart continues to stumble. Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier both lack the experience and defensive prowess to be relied on for big minutes against the Wizards. Bench bigs like Jonas Jerebko and Kelly Olynyk can’t be counted on to stay out of foul trouble and match up with a more athletic Wizards lineup for big minutes either. Smart has a far superior motor to all of those players and it’s something that Stevens needs to return this series.
“I wouldn’t trade his passion for anything,” he said of Smart. “It’s the competitiveness that makes him who he is. And it’s a passion that makes him who he is. There can be mistakes with effort that come from that, and that’s OK. That’s what we love about him.”
The bottom line is, the Celtics are probably not going to be able to win this series without a solid offensive effort from Smart. He doesn’t need to be great, or even good, he just needs to avoid being a net negative for the Celtics’ offense.
Boston’s defense has fallen apart (team-worst 122 defensive rating) when Smart is not on the floor this series, so it’s on the third-year guard to find his poise once more. He doesn’t have to worry about getting more opportunities, since there’s no doubt that Stevens will keep turning to him. The Celtics will live or die with him on the floor this postseason, so it’s up to him whether they will push towards the conference finals or to a disappointing postseason finish.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.