By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There is no sugarcoating this for the Boston Celtics. Losing Marcus Smart just before the playoffs is a massive blow to their postseason hopes.
Just when it seemed like the Celtics may actually have a healthy squad entering the postseason, they’ll now be without their grittiest player and defensive heartbeat for 4-to-6 weeks. Smart won’t be playing anytime soon after suffering an oblique tear Sunday night against the Magic, which could be the last time we’ll see Boston’s madman hit the floor until next season.
The Celtics should still be able to handle the under-manned Indiana Pacers in the first round without Smart, but the series just got a whole lot tougher. And if the Celtics do advance, their overall outlook just got a lot murkier.
No one hit the deck like Marcus Smart, whether he was going after a loose ball or trying to sell contact. It usually led to good things for the Celtics, and even if Smart’s sprawling escapades didn’t lead to a possession, it gave the team a spark. Seeing Smart go all-out on every possession gets the crowd into the game, and it should inspire his teammates. If there was ever a 50/50 ball within his grasp, Smart was going to give it 150 percent to get his hands on it.
Look no further than last year at this time. Smart had to sit out the first four games of Boston’s opening round matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks with torn ligaments in his hand. It took him less than a minute after checking into Game 5 to hit the floor pouncing for a loose ball. That will be greatly missed this postseason, when winning 50/50 balls is more important than ever.
The Celtics are going to miss Smart’s defensive persistence. He harasses opposing scorers like few others, whether they’re fellow guards or bigger forwards. He’s their best perimeter defender and takes much of the defensive pressure off Kyrie Irving when he shares the floor with Boston’s best player.
And though his shot selection can be infuriating at times, Smart morphed into an average shooter this season, hitting 42 percent from the floor and 36 percent from three-point range. The Celtics can easily get that kind of offense elsewhere, but it’s part of the complete package that Smart put together this season. It will be missed, just not as much as Smart’s defense and heart.
The earliest Smart can return to basketball activities is early May. He’d likely be out of the lineup until mid-May, which is when the conference finals tip off, and who knows what kind of rust he’ll be dealing with after a six-week absence. Chances are we will not be seeing Marcus Smart again this season, not unless a handful of other players step up their game over the next month-plus.
Gordon Hayward or Jaylen Brown could easily slide into Boston’s starting five and provide similar defense to Smart, and their offensive output would (or at least should) eclipse what Smart brings. Terry Rozier will also see an uptick in minutes, a great opportunity for him to make up for his abysmal regular season. He thrived in an increased role last postseason, starting in place of the injured Irving, but was never comfortable coming off the bench during the regular season. Now he’ll get another chance to shine, an opportunity he can’t afford to miss.
But none of them can replace the grit and hustle that Smart brings to the table. That will be difficult to replicate at a time when it matters most, and will take a collective effort from whoever is on the floor for the Celtics.