BOSTON – The role of an NBA sixth man is to not only be a glue guy off the bench, but to also have the flexibility to step into the starting lineup if need be.
Marcus Smart has been exactly that type of player for the Boston Celtics over the last five seasons, and Monday night’s game in New Orleans provided the latest example of his adjustability.
Starting shooting guard Jaylen Brown was sidelined for the Celtics’ matchup against the Pelicans, and without hesitation, coach Brad Stevens penciled Smart’s name into the empty backcourt slot.
Despite it being his first start of the season, Smart made a seamless transition into the starting rotation. In fact, his presence made the biggest difference in the game.
The energy and intensity that the fifth-year guard brought out of the gate helped Boston to get out to a 34-21 lead after one quarter. And once they were up, the Celtics never looked back, running away with a 124-107 win.
During a team-high 40 minutes of action, Smart compiled eight points, five assists and a pair of rebounds. Most importantly, he was the key defensive stopper in the game, personally allowing just 14 points on 80 defensive possessions, while forcing a total of seven turnovers.
Reporters were still buzzing at Wednesday afternoon’s practice about Smart’s impact, prompting them to question Stevens if Smart’s promotion to the starting rotation could be a permanent solution to help the team get on track after an 11-10 start.
Stevens wouldn’t say if he was leaning one way or another, as he weighed the pros and cons of the situation. On one hand, he noted the great influence that Smart had on the team’s fast start, but the coach also pointed out the dilemma in potentially removing him from the second unit.
“The problem with starting Marcus Smart is that he can’t bring his energy off the bench,” said Stevens, who also confirmed that Brown’s injury is day-to-day. “He’s a valuable guy in both of those areas (as a starter or as a reserve) for the same reason: that he does all of the intangible stuff to have success.”
The intangible traits that Smart brings to the table are just as valuable to the second unit as they are to the first, which is what makes the looming decision so difficult to make.
“In the past, it’s really aided us (to bring him in) at the six-minute mark of a first quarter,” said Stevens. “But clearly it aided us the other night at the start, so we’ll see how it goes from here.”
One player who was aided by Smart’s presence on both ends of the floor was Kyrie Irving.
“On the offensive end it takes pressure off me being able to play off the ball sometimes,” Irving said after the game. “My energy can get depleted coming up and down and directing the ball every single time. And having Marcus in there gave me that outlet to be able to get off the ball.”
It’s just one more aspect for Stevens to consider as he weighs his options.
No matter what the decision winds up being, Smart will undoubtedly accept it. He has always approached these matters selflessly, ever since the beginning of his sophomore campaign, when he surrendered the starting point guard job to Isaiah Thomas.
“Anything can happen and you’ve got to be able to adapt to it,” said Smart. “Just because I got hurt and Isaiah started, I couldn’t let that affect how I played when I came in. Some guys are like that and see it as a negative because they have to come off the bench, but you can’t look at it that way. We’ve got 82 games, it’s a long season, and things are going to happen.”
Regardless of what happens with regard to Smart’s role, he’ll maintain the same mindset that fueled Boston’s win Monday night.
“Whenever I’m out there I just try to play with the same energy, the same intensity and try to do everything right,” said Smart.
That’s how he has approached his job from Day 1 here in Boston. And that’s why he is the perfect sixth man for the Celtics.