The Celtics weathered a 46-point Bradley Beal barrage and escaped with a 111-110 victory over the red hot Wizards Sunday night. Jayson Tatum scored 31 and converted a pair of clutch drives in the closing seconds. With All-Star Jaylen Brown sidelined, some fans might have clicked off their TVs and radios and considered it a good win.
But the effort was also symptomatic of everything that has plagued the Green this season, particularly with Marcus Smart out.
Another opposing player went off for 30-plus points – the 10th time that has happened over the last 10 games – with Beal (twice) again joining Trae Young (three times), Danilo Gallinari, Luka Doncic, Brandon Ingram, Nikola Jokic and Saddiq Bey. The Boston defense has also achieved the recent feats of allowing 60 points in the paint to the Hawks, letting the Spurs shoot 81 percent in the key, and watching an opponent (Gallinari) rain down 10 threes.
Additionally, with Brown out, the Washington defense swarmed Tatum, knocked Walker out of rhythm, and dared another Celtic to make them pay for that strategy. Fortunately, scoring machine Daniel Theis had a huge second half stretch where he knocked down four consecutive shots.
The other night, old friend Adam Kaufman asked this question:
Is Marcus Smart, like, WAY more important to the #Celtics than anyone's willing to admit? We knew he's the glue guy, the heart and soul, the leader, the de facto captain, the defensive stud...all that...but is Smart also the difference between Boston being really good and...this?— Adam Kaufman (@AdamMKaufman) February 25, 2021
The replies – and there were plenty – ranged from the kind of ebullience typically reserved for a favorite political candidate to wanting to send him halfway to Siberia. As usual, there’s rarely any in-between.
Regardless of where you stand on Smart, his absence shines a light.
“Nobody else even wants to shoot the ball,” observed Cedric Maxwell during a fourth quarter where Beal took over the game while the Celtics teased multiple shot clock violations.
Smart shoots it, even when it makes us uncomfortable. And his penchant for spontaneous combustion from beyond the arc is a quality lacking in the rest of the supporting cast. Sure, Semi Ojeleye and Payton Pritchard had twin six-three pointer performances against the Raptors a few weeks back. They’ve also averaged a combined 11 points per game since.
Theis had 20 Sunday night. It was his sixth such effort in three-plus years as a Celtic.
Boston has survived long absences without Smart in previous seasons. They were 9-3 without him last year. They also had Gordon Hayward (17.5 points per game on 50 percent shooting) for a number of those games. For better or for worse, Smart would be the guy to step forward with the team shorthanded.
The elephant in the room is that Smart also would have defended Beal. It might have taken an act of Congress to keep the D.C. scoring machine under 40, but there’s at least a clear delineation of responsibilities with an All-NBA stopper in the mix.
Which leads us to those intangibles that drive opposing teams (and approximately half of sports radio callers) crazy. As Mike Gorman told Toucher and Rich last week, in Smart’s absence, “All the toughness is gone. All the attitude is gone.”
Wyc Grousbeck noted on Felger and Mazz that the Celtics lack “that kind of Kevin Garnett, ‘rip everybody’s throat out’ intensity.”
And while it’s a fool’s errand to ask anybody to be as intense as one of the ultimate between-the-lines basket cases in NBA history, they could certainly use some on-court accountability for the recent blown leads, poor third quarters, and inability to put away the opposition. Trends that led Grande and Max to make a third quarter observation that the Green were lacking energy, before Beal swooped in for an offensive rebound and converted his own miss.
This is not to suggest Smart is some kind of magic salve for a flawed team with two of its top guys battling knee issues. The roster with Tatum, Brown, Kemba and Smart should be a competitive one. But they haven’t been close to 100 percent, and headed into the All-Star break, the C’s resemble weary sailors who’ve spent the past several weeks just trying to plug holes in the boat.
With last season’s Eastern Conference finalists at .500 (yet still in the thick of things), it’s easy to feel like the season could slip away. Getting Smart back would hide depth issues on both ends of the floor. Until the most overrated underrated Celtic in recent history gets back out there, the pressure stays on Danny Ainge to make a move or for somebody, anybody else to step up.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.