BOSTON -- When Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens subbed Marcus Smart in to chase an offensive rebound in the final seconds of Boston's thrilling win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday, there was a bit of accidental luck involved in the decision.
That Smart got shuffled into a similar position in the final minute of regulation in Wednesday's overtime win over the Los Angeles Clippers, however, was completely by design.
Even though Boston had a bigger body than Smart on the court, in the form of Jonas Jerebko, Stevens elected to have Jae Crowder and Smart on the blocks as Isaiah Thomas looked to complete a 3-point play with 56.1 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of a three-point game. Thomas is shooting nearly 90 percent at the line this season, but that wouldn't stop Stevens from planning ahead.
The second the ball left Thomas' hands, Smart put a spin move on Wesley Johnson that would make most NFL defensive linemen blush. Even as he was completing the 360, Smart started tracking the flight of the ball, and when it caught the front rim, Smart had already slipped in front of Johnson and established position to chase the rebound. With Crowder doing all he could to pull Paul Pierce away from the basket on the opposite side, Smart leaped between two Clippers and snagged the rebound. What's more, he went right back up and managed to draw a foul from an off-balance Johnson.
Smart took a second to exult and flex his muscles to a crowd that was delirious as the Celtics made their late-game charge. Combined with his efforts Friday in Cleveland, Smart has become Boston's poster child for making all the little plays that make a big difference in winning games.
Smart will step into a bigger spotlight Friday night, when he participates in the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star weekend. In playing some of his best basketball recently, Smart has proven he deserves his spot on the U.S. roster at the annual rookie/sophomore showcase, and it's obvious that his elevated play has contributed in large part to the Celtics' winning 10 of their final 12 games before the break.
In that 12-game span, Smart is averaging 12 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.9 steals in 27.8 minutes per game. Most notable: Smart is shooting 39.3 percent from beyond the 3-point arc in that span, an unfathomable turnaround after he shot an abysmal 19.5 percent beyond the arc in his first 22 games of the season. Smart's effective field goal percentage -- adjusting for the value of 3-point shots -- over the past 12 games is 51.4 percent, the second-best mark for a guard on the team in that span, behind only Avery Bradley (56.5).
Smart's 3-point percentage has climbed to 28.7 percent in the less than three weeks since the random snow day that he pointed to as his turning point in finding his stroke. Since that snow day, Smart has made 42.9 percent of his 3-pointers (24-of-56), which is the best mark on the team in that 11-game span.
Smart's offensive development is a boon for Boston. The 21-year-old bulldog had already made himself a key rotation player with his hustle and defensive tenacity. Now, the No. 6 pick in the 2014 draft is not only developing his point guard skills and being more aggressive going at the basket, but also knocking down 3-point shots.
A year ago, Smart got passed up for the Rising Stars Challenge in part because of an ankle injury that forced him to miss extended time in the first half of his rookie season. Sidelined for 18 games this year due to a knee injury, Smart admitted he was surprised to be selected to the game this time. But his recent play has validated his spot among some of the more notable first- and second-year players in the league.
Smart has pledged to not take charges or dive for loose balls at the Rising Stars game. No one believes him. Smart is going to have to consciously dial down his intensity for an exhibition. Maybe he'll settle for putting his improved perimeter shooting on display. That said, if the game is close in the latter part of play, don't be surprised if Smart ramps up to his usual intensity.
This more confident Smart could play a key role in just how far Boston is able to march this season. With All-Star Isaiah Thomas cementing his starting role with the Celtics this season, Smart -- a starter during Boston's playoff surge the past season -- has embraced being part of a reserve group that has set the team apart in recent weeks. Thomas is able to share ball-handling duties with Evan Turner, and as he knocks down more shots, that has made him dangerous on and off the ball.
Smart fouled out just seconds after his free-throw hustle play Wednesday. It was appropriate, however, that he picked up that sixth foul while trying to corral his own missed free throw. Smart spent the rest of the game standing near the end of the Boston bench, invested in every second of the team's rally to force overtime and prevail in the extra session.
You can't help but wonder if the Celtics would have gotten to overtime without Smart. The vibe around the team would be much different without Smart's hustle plays against the Cavaliers and Clippers. Those little plays have sent Boston into the break with big expectations for the second half of the season and beyond.