Marcus Smart was most definitely frustrated when he told scribes the other day that teammates Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown needed to “pass the ball” for the Celtics to have a chance of performing anywhere near to potential. He dispensed with diplomacy altogether; not even bothering to append the word “more” to soften the implication of his statement, he bared his sentiments borne of three straight losses. And, needless to say, he was smarting — pun wholly intended — from the manner in which they just bowed to the Bulls, who not only carved victory off a 19-point second-half deficit, but outscored them by a whopping 33 points in the last 14 and a half minutes of the match. “I think everybody’s scouting report is to make those guys pass the ball. They don’t want to pass the ball,” he argued.
That said, Smart also most definitely meant well. In venting before members of the media, he didn’t really want more shots for himself, never mind his contention that “I just stand in the corner [and] can only do so much without the ball in my hands.” Since being chosen sixth overall in the 2014 draft, he has normed a relatively low nine field-goal attempts per outing. More likely, he is also angling to prove his worth as the Celtics’ designated playmaker following the departure of point guard Kemba Walker. He might have been better served enunciating his thoughts behind closed doors, but there can be no doubting where his heart lies. He leaves everything out on the floor whenever he burns rubber, and it’s in this context that his message needs to be taken.
The good news is that Tatum and Brown appear to have accepted the criticism. There was certainly temptation for them to lash back at Smart, whose efficiency stats so far this season leave much to be desired; in fact, his percentages from the field are all-time lows. Under the circumstances, they would have been justified in reaching for the low-hanging fruit and pointing out that, given his offensive woes, the right play at any given time would be to keep the ball and not pass it to him. Instead, they took the feedback in stride and pledged to learn from it. In this regard, the team dinner the Celtics had thereafter helped no end; veteran Al Horford pointed out that “it was nice to break bread together and hang out.”
In any case, the effect was evident in the Celtics’ next set-to. Yesterday, they came out with their best defensive effort of the young 2021-22 campaign to triumph against the lowly Magic. Even casual observers who caught the contest at the Amway Center will not be hard-pressed to conclude that they still have a lot to go insofar as putting points on the board is concerned. The flipside is that work on the other end was nothing short of stellar, and, as all and sundry know only too well, determination is key to outstanding D.
Whether or not the Celtics will generate some momentum from here on remains to be seen. One thing is clear, however: They won’t go far unless Tatum, Brown, and Smart know their roles under new head coach Ime Udoka, and work together to play them as close to perfection as possible.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.