If you're looking for a highlight that helps sum up the priorities of Boston Celtics point guard Marcus Smart, just watch the Brooklyn Nets' final offensive possession of the first quarter on Wednesday night. After Brooklyn's Yogi Ferrell missed a pull-up jumper, Smart hauled in the rebound, quickly wheeled and launched a prayer the length of the court.
The heave -- which landed in a fan's lap in the first row of seats on the baseline -- wasn't officially scored a shot because Smart released the ball after the buzzer. But in a league where players go out of their way to protect their field goal percentage, Smart is the rare breed who prioritizes all things winning over his statistics.
Smart, who is badgered by casual observers for his shooting struggles, had another poor shooting performance Wednesday, making just 2-of-10 shots during Boston's 111-92 triumph at the Barclays Center. But Smart still managed to influence the game, particularly when the Celtics started to separate in the third quarter with an entrancing display of defense and playmaking.
Smart, 22, finished with 4 points, 8 assists, 8 rebounds, and 2 steals. He was plus-13 on a night when most of Boston's bench players worked to stay in positive numbers. For the season, Smart is averaging 9.9 points per game while shooting 35.9 percent from the floor. But his defensive talents and intangibles are a big reason why the Celtics won all three games on their recent road trip and have won six of their past eight overall.
There may very well come a time when the Celtics need Smart to step up and be a more consistent shooter and scorer. But what the stats suggest so far this season is that the Celtics are actually far more effective when Smart struggles to score and instead finds other ways to influence the game. Just look at his splits during Boston's wins and losses:
Maybe not surprisingly, Boston's defensive rating plummets to 91.3 points per 100 possessions when Smart is on the floor during wins this season. That's a number that's nearly five points lower than the league-leading 96.2 defensive rating owned by the Atlanta Hawks this year.
Smart's impact Wednesday was on full display late in the first quarter. The Nets' Joe Harris up-faked with a transition 3-point attempt, and Smart raced out to contest. When Harris tried to instead swing the ball to the corner, Smart leaped and batted down the pass like a defensive lineman. Smart then collected the ball, spun and had the presence of mind to feed a streaking Isaiah Thomas for a layup.
A short time later, pinned in the corner with Harris defending, Smart delivered a vicious spin move that allowed him to race into the paint, where he gave a little no-look handoff to a cutting Avery Bradley for a floater in the lane.
Late in the third quarter, as the Celtics started to pull away, Smart raced into three Nets players in transition near the free throw line, went behind his back with his dribble to protect the ball, then delivered another no-look feed to a racing Tyler Zeller for a layup.
Defensively, Smart was the usual antagonizer (just ask Trevor Booker, who found himself in a little barking match with Smart in the second half). Even when Smart got beat, he found a way to recover. Like when Harris went backdoor on a baseline cut in the third quarter and should have had an easy layup. Instead, Smart scrambled to not only block the shot but grabbed the rebound and got fouled by Harris while falling out of bounds.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens often notes how Smart simply makes winning plays. The Celtics might not have started this three-game road trip on the right foot if Smart didn't make the key hustle play before Al Horford's winner in Detroit. Teammates credited Smart for his vocal contributions before the Celtics rallied from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter in Minnesota on Monday.
After Wednesday's win in Brooklyn, Smart expressed satisfaction that the Celtics are slowly becoming the defensive-minded team that most expected at the start of the season. Boston was impossibly bad at the start of the year while navigating injuries, including the ankle injury that sidelined Smart for the start of the regular season. But over the past eight games, Boston's defensive rating is a league-best 95.7, a full point better than the nearest team in that same span.
Casual observers might never quite understand Smart, the No. 6 pick in the 2014 draft. Someone at your Thanksgiving dinner will grumble about his shooting if Smart's name is invoked. But Smart's impact goes well beyond his shooting percentage, and the Celtics' record might look a whole lot worse if not for his contributions.