By CBSBoston.com Staff

BOSTON (CBS) — Marcus Smart is set to return to the Celtics lineup Thursday night when Boston tips off the second half of the season, and that’s swell news for a team that has had some serious issues on the defensive end.

The Celtics was struggling on defense before Smart went down with a brutal calf injury back on Jan. 30, but the team’s play slipped even more with their defensive leader sidelined. The team’s 114.7 defensive rating in 18 games without Smart would rank at the bottom of the NBA this season. As it is, the Celtics are in the middle of the pack at 111.7 for the year.

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After a lengthy stint away from hounding anyone looking to score (or do anything on offense for that matter), Smart is champing at the bit to get back out there. And after watching his team’s defensive woes during his absence, he knows what he has to do when he finally returns to the floor.

“Bring back that energy on the defensive end for us,” he said Wednesday after practicing for the first time since getting hurt.

Smart will be on a minutes restriction as he knocks off some rust and gets his wind back. It’s unclear how much Smart will play while he’s handcuffed with that restriction, but there is little doubt he’ll be doing all the things he normally does as full house; take charges, body up opposing players, and dive for every loose ball in his general vicinity.

His first assignment Thursday night isn’t an easy one, with the Celtics set to visit Kyrie Irving, James Harden and the Brooklyn Nets. Nothing like having to slow down one of the NBA’s most dynamic offenses, led by two of the most dynamic scorers, in your first game back. But for a Celtics team that has been allowing opposing players to score 30 points with relative ease, something that occurred in 21 of the team’s first 36 games, a little more vigor on the defensive end will go a long way. Smart will provide that, even if he’s just barking out orders — and critiques — from the bench.

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Though he himself may not be at full speed for some time, Smart is hoping that his return helps spark everyone else’s defensive intensity. It’s something that has been greatly lacking from the Celtics for large swaths of the season.

“I just want to see my guys play with the same intensity I have. I’m not saying you have to go out there and play the exact way I do, just the same intensity,” he said. “That’s all I ask for and I think that’s all the coaching staff asks for. When all five of our guys on the court and all 17 guys are playing with intensity when they are on the court, it makes a difference.

“It’s a team game, so if one guy is not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, especially on the defensive end, it breaks down,” he added. “We all work together. We’re all tied to a string. So when one guy does something intensity-wise, everyone else has to pick it up on it and keep it going and continue to strive to become the defensive team that we know we can be, that we want to be and that we should be.”

Smart is hoping that the Celtics leave their occasionally miserable first half in the past and view the next 36 games as a fresh start. The team won four straight ahead of the All-Star break to instill some confidence that the can morph back into the Celtics we’ve seen over the last few years, but their defense still left a lot to be desired during that win streak.

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Smart will hopefully be a big part of remedying Boston’s most glaring issue now that he’s back in the mix.

CBSBoston.com Staff