How Marcus Smart has adapted under Ime Udoka has me buying into the Celtics once more

Maybe it's the addition of Ime Udoka (center) that's inspired a change in Marcus Smart (left) as Jaylen Brown (right) returns from injury.


Before I announce that I’m back in on Marcus Smart and the Celtics, I suppose I should provide full disclosure:

I was out on Marcus Smart and the Celtics.

Mind you, I didn’t want to be. Since Smart arrived as the No. 6 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, I’ve believed he would grow into that quintessential tough-as-masonry-nails Celtic in the K.C. Jones/Don Chaney/M.L. Carr tradition, one who would find ways to help win games even on nights when his jump shot had the density of a brick.

Smart has never feared being on the wrong end of a mismatch – remember him frustrating Giannis Antetokounmpo, who stands eight inches taller, in the 2018 playoffs? He probably never ever considered it was supposed to be a mismatch.


He agitated James Harden so thoroughly during a 2017 Celtics win, drawing two crucial offensive foul calls late in the game, that the then-Rockets star appeared one more whistle away from pulling his hair out of his head and possibly his beard off his face.

Fine, I’ll say it. I thought Smart would prove he had some Dennis Johnson in him – an underrated playmaker, a defensive difference-maker, and someone who would come up big when the moment demanded it. I believed championships could be won with Smart in a role of prominence.

But the trajectory didn’t cooperate. His style, which often suggests he’s trying out to play free safety for the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers, led to injuries, and the injuries, at least last season, appeared to lead to a decline in his defensive prowess. And while he averaged a career-high in assists last season (5.7 per game), it also seemed like he averaged a career-high in off-balance 3-pointers jacked up with 14 seconds on the shot clock.

His game had become hard to like, even for someone who long championed his contributions and capabilities. The same could have been said for the team, which a season ago habitually devolved into “It’s My Turn Now” isolation offense and only ratcheted up the defensive intensity when embarrassment was the other option. The players were mostly likable individually. As a team, they too often didn’t look like they were particularly interested in being one.


Change came – hard but necessary change – in the offseason. Danny Ainge retired after a mostly excellent run in which too much of the fan base habitually underestimated how difficult it is to put together a championship team in the NBA. Brad Stevens moved from the bench into Ainge’s role after eight seasons as coach. And Ime Udoka, a former Gregg Popovich player and assistant with a broad range of experiences, was hired as coach.

The Celtics added other different faces on the court – Al Horford returned in a swap for Kemba Walker, and veterans Josh Richardson and Dennis Schröder signed on. But the core – Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, skip a beat, and then Smart – remained the same. And so, for a little while, did the perplexing underachievement.  The Celtics begin the season 2-5, including three losses in a span of six games to the Wizards (twice) and the Bulls, a 19-point lead punted away against Chicago. Through their first seven games, they allowed 119.7 points per game.

The season could have careened off the road right there. Udoka was candid when mistakes were made, almost matter-of-factly critical. Tatum and Brown could have shunned the coach’s demand to move the ball more and create for others. The defensive intensity could have become more sporadic.


Instead, they solved this. They figured it out. It started with defense – they held the Magic to 79 points and the Heat to 78 in back-to-back road wins – and that has been the backbone of their current stretch of eight wins in 11 games.

And it turns out that after ironing out those wrinkles, there’s a lot to like on the offensive end. Tatum, raised at the altar of Kobe, is trying to make the right play almost all the time (he made a bounce pass to Horford for a layup against the Lakers that ranks as one of the sweetest assists of his career).

Schröder, who has games of 39, 29, and 28 points since Nov. 12, gives the Celtics someone who can turn on the jets and get to hoop for an easy bucket when they need one. The likes of Jeff Teague did not provide this particular basketball amenity last season.

Brown and Robert Williams both returned from injuries against the Rockets Monday night and fit in well. Brown, after looking out of sorts early, helped the Celtics go on a 24-3 run after halftime by contributing 12 points in the third quarter. Williams, who stands 6 foot 8 but plays above everyone else on the court, hauled in 15 rebounds.

Horford looks like the exact player smart fans were bummed to see depart as a free agent after the ‘19 season. Romeo Langford, smooth and no longer passive, is figuring it out. Grant Williams is a 3-point threat. There’s much more quality depth on this roster than last year, and Udoka has made it clear that if you don’t play defense, you might as well plan on keeping your warmup on until all important matters are settled.


What else? Oh, right, Smart. I don’t know if it’s because he’s healthy, or Udoka connects with him in a way Stevens no longer could, but the player we’ve seen lately isn’t just an improvement on last year’s version – he’s an improvement on the early version of so much promise. Smart still has the devil on his shoulder telling him to take that pull-up 3 from 27 feet, but he’s better at ignoring it.

He’s embracing his playmaker obligations, and the defense? I mean, did you see that cobra-strike of a steal against the Thunder’s Shea Gilgeous-Alexander late in Saturday’s 111-105 win? I wasn’t sure we’d ever see him make those kinds of plays again.

It was vintage Smart in all the right ways, and it was the precise moment I knew I was back in, on this particular player, this collection of players, and at last, this team.

Bring on the Nets. Oh, and watch out for those charging calls, Harden. The old familiar nuisance in the No. 36 jersey is back, and not about to back down.


This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com