Celtics Have Lost Their Defensive Identity During Marcus Smart's Absence

Forsberg: C's have lost their defensive identity without Marcus Smart originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Celtics’ recent rough patch has highlighted just how much this team misses Marcus Smart.

Boston’s defensive rating hasn’t plummeted without their defensive coordinator — they’re still 10th in the NBA allowing 110.2 points per 100 possessions, though that number is up to 112.6 in the month of February  — but the Celtics most certainly have lacked the same grit, hustle, and intensity on the defensive end since Smart injured his calf in late January.

Before the Celtics played the Nuggets on Tuesday night, Denver coach Mike Malone was asked about his team’s recent surge on the defensive end. He immediately pointed to an uptick in deflections and stressed how that’s a primary indicator to him of offensive disruption and a key guide to how locked in his team is on a given night.

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Given that Smart is easily Boston’s leader in deflections, averaging 3.2 per game, a mark that ranks 10th in the NBA, we wondered how his absence had impacted Boston’s deflection totals, and their hustle play in general. 

The data says a lot about why Boston is struggling: 


A look at how Marcus Smart’s absence has resulted in a dip in hustle stats for the Boston Celtics (with league rank): 

 Before Smart injurySince Smart's absence
Deflections16.9 (6th)13.1 (22nd)
Loose balls6.7 (11th)5.4 (27th)
Charges drawn0.83 (8th)0.70 (8th)
Contested shots51.7 (25th)48 (28th)

The Celtics have lost their defensive DNA without Smart. They’re not getting deflections, they’re not winning the race to loose balls, they’re not getting as many momentum-shifting charges, and they’re not contesting as many shots. It shows a general downturn in the lack of effort.

For a team with a scoring differential of just +0.9 this season, and one playing a high number of close games, the dip in hustle is enough to swing a game.

Boston’s defense was far from perfect even when Smart was healthy. Smart hadn’t played to his own lofty standards so far this season and Boston’s perimeter defense has been inconsistent at best, which has put a lot of stress on the back line.

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But it’s impossible to watch Boston operate with a general lack of urgency on the defensive end, commit numerous defensive miscues, and not wonder if Smart could help tighten up a lot of what ails this team on that end of the court. Boston has also sorely missed Smart’s playmaking on the offensive end, where ball movement might be at the root of Boston’s struggles.

Smart admitted his recovery from the calf injury has been slower than he hoped but the team is operating with the big picture in mind, no easy task when the denizens of Celtics Nation are ripping their hair out nightly as the team sits at .500 with nearly 40 percent of the season in the rearview.

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge noted Thursday during his radio appearance how health might be more important to Boston’s overall success than any in-season acquisition.

The Celtics need a healthy Smart and they need him to rebuild the defensive DNA that is sorely missing from the team this season.

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