By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — One of the many aspects of the Celtics’ sluggish start to the season was their severe lack of energy to begin games.
Too often during their 10-10 start, the Celtics found themselves in a giant hole before they knew what hit them. Their lack of vigor from the jump had Brad Stevens modifying his starting five, though nothing had really provided the spark that Boston needed.
That was until Monday night in New Orleans. With a lower back bruise sidelining Jaylen Brown, Stevens found that spark in Marcus Smart. Inserted into the starting five alongside Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford, Boston’s feisty guard gave the team the injection of energy they’ve needed from tip-off.
Smart has been one of the more vocal Celtics during the team’s struggles, saying the team needed to get their edge back, and he backed it all up against the Pelicans. As usual, you’d never know it from Smart’s final line: eight points off 3-of-8 shooting, five assists, two rebounds, a steal and a block. But his fingerprints were all over victory, playing a team-high 40 minutes.
His biggest impact came early, as the Celtics played some spectacular perimeter and pick-and-roll defense from the jump. He jumped lanes and made life tough on New Orleans shooters, and that solid D led to some easy offense for Boston. There was a sense of urgency right from tip-off and Boston jumped out to a 15-point lead in the opening frame. With Smart’s spirited enthusiasm on the defensive end (picture a small dog running after a truck), the Pelicans turned the ball over eight times in the first quarter, leading to 11 Celtics points. Boston owned a 10-2 lead before the Pelicans made a shot from the floor.
The Celtics forced 20 New Orleans miscues on Monday night. Anthony Davis was held to a pedestrian 27 points and 16 rebounds (pedestrian by Brow standards, that is), and other than a hot streak from Nikola Mirotic in the second quarter, none of Davis’ supporting cast was able to get much going. Smart spent much of his evening harassing Jrue Holiday, who is off to the best start of his nine-year career. He finished with 13 points off 4-of-8 shooting and turned the ball over eight times, including four times in the first quarter.
Boston’s lead ballooned to as many as 20 points in the second quarter. The Pelicans did make some runs as the Celtics struggled to close quarters, and New Orleans had their deficit down to six early in the fourth quarter. But the Celtics did not buckle from the pressure and hit a barrage of threes to stem the tide. They’d close out their best start-to-finish game of the season for a 124-107 victory to improve to 11-10 on the season.
“That’s how we’re used to playing,” Smart said following the win. “That’s the team we know and the way we played in the past. That’s the type of game we have to get back to with guys feeling it from the start.”
Kyrie Irving, who led the way for Boston with 26 points, said having Smart alongside him in the starting backcourt made a gigantic difference on many different levels.
“We really had that mindset going that we wanted to start off the game and have a defensive presence,” said Irving. “Marcus on the ball took some of that pressure off me, being off the ball as well offensively and defensively. Having Marcus in there gave me that outlet to be able get off the ball. We did pretty well with our unit tonight. We started off the game and we never looked back.”
Irving raised a some eyebrows a few weeks ago when he did not mention Smart in a laundry list of players who needed to step up as leaders. Following Monday night’s win, he made it abundantly clear that he does indeed consider Smart one of the leaders of the Celtics.
“I mean there’s a reason why we signed him back,” said Irving. “There’s a reason why he’s very instrumental for our team to be successful, because he’s a veteran now; not in terms of years, but he’s played high level basketball for the Celtics for a few years now. So we expect him to be in the right spots and doing the right things. And when he’s playing with me, we play pretty well together.”
The Celtics as a whole played pretty well on Monday night. It was an all-around effort with Horford (20 points), Tatum (20 points) and Morris (19 points, 11 rebounds) all enjoying big nights. Smart was the only member of Boston’s starting five not to hit double digits in points, but his impact was elsewhere. And that impact was a big reason why everyone else got to enjoy big scoring nights.
Boston will enjoy three days off before hosting the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night. That gives Stevens plenty of time to think about his starting five, which he says will be ever-evolving throughout the season.
“We won’t be settled on a starting lineup until forever,” he joked after Monday’s win.
But it’s clear that for now, the Celtics need Marcus Smart, his defense, and most importantly, his energy, on the floor to start games.