Smart's impact not lost on Celtics

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BOSTON -- How much confidence does Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens have in rookie Marcus Smart? After running Smart for nearly all of the second half of Wednesday's game against the Utah Jazz, Stevens put the ball in the rookie's hands as the inbounder at the game's most critical juncture.

Smart didn't force anything when the Jazz blew up Boston's first attempt to put a final play in motion. And he remained unflappable despite having 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert defending both inbound attempts with Boston down 1 with 1.7 seconds to play. No, the 20-year-old Smart calmly waited for Tyler Zeller to draw the anticipated switch on the second attempt and lobbed a near-perfect feed from in front of the Boston bench to beneath the basket, where Zeller waited a beat before muscling home the winner in traffic as Smart delivered an emphatic fist pump in celebration.

Zeller got headlines for making the shot, Stevens was toasted for the play-call, and, heck, Luigi Datome got kudos for offering some sage sideline advice before the last shot. But Smart's pass spoke volumes about his quiet importance to the Celtics now and into the future.

A night earlier in Cleveland, Stevens had been asked about Smart's rookie development and showered the No. 6 pick with telling praise.

"I think, no matter what, Marcus always has a place on a winning team," Stevens said. "And the reason I say that is because he's a competitor, first and foremost. There's nobody that would argue that. Nobody that's around him, nobody that's ever coached him, nobody that's ever played against him would argue his competitiveness.

"He makes mistakes on both ends of the court, and he will always make mistakes on both ends of the court because he's kind of got that competitive edge that makes him sometimes take a risk or take a gamble. But most of the time his stuff pans out because of his aggressiveness. And that's a great person to build with."

On Boston's young, superstar-less roster, there's a case to be made that no player has a better chance to emerge as the face of the team than Smart, whose gritty play very much aligns with the style of basketball Stevens desires from his team. Yes, Smart is still learning how to be a point guard at the NBA level and his shooting has been streaky this season (more cold than hot). But he impacts the game in a positive way for Boston most every time he touches the floor.

That's probably most notable at the defensive end, where he's beyond his years in being able to defend at the NBA level. But good things seem to happen when Smart is on the court, regardless of how he's playing, and that's an encouraging sign about his influence on this team.

During Wednesday's tilt with the Jazz, the NBA announced Smart had won the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month award for February. The honor is made all the more impressive considering Smart's shooting woes for much of that month (and into March). But almost as if to demonstrate the balance with Smart, he missed six of his first seven shots Wednesday, then picked off a pass right before halftime, attacked the basket in transition and completed an old-fashioned 3-point play to send Boston into halftime with a 1-point lead.

Smart finished Wednesday's game with 7 points on 3-of-14 shooting, missing all six 3-pointers he took, to go along with 4 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 steals. The most shining positives: He didn't commit a turnover despite playing nearly 40 minutes and the late-game heroics don't occur if he doesn't put the play into motion.

Asked after the game about winning the rookie of the month award, Smart tried to steer the conversation back to the team's success.

"It was good news to hear, but it doesn't really mean anything right now," Smart said. "This team is still in the rebuilding stage and we're still trying to make the playoffs, so that's my biggest concern. I'm happy that I was named the rookie of the month in the Eastern Conference, but as of right now, that's not really at the top of my list [of things] to worry about."

Smart's stat line doesn't leap off the page as he's averaging 7.4 points, 3.5 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game. He's shooting just 36.1 percent overall and 32.1 percent beyond the 3-point arc.

He sizzled in January, shooting 40.7 percent from the floor and 42.4 percent beyond the arc, which contributed to his elevation back to the starting lineup in early February. While his shooting plummeted last month (35.4 percent overall; 26.8 percent beyond the 3-point arc) his playing time ballooned by seven minutes per contest and the Celtics leaned hard on him while trying to figure out their identity after trades that sent out the likes of All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo.

Smart's rookie of the month honor cemented that observers are starting to look beyond the basic box score to judge his progress. That's something Smart acknowledged Wednesday while noting, "It does mean a lot that people recognize that my impacting the game isn't only just scoring the ball. I can score, but also just making the little plays and, on the defensive end, helping my team out."

For the month of February, Smart limited his opponents to 39.6 percent shooting, according to the league's player-tracking data. That's 3.5 percent below their season averages. Smart made life difficult away from the basket with his opponents shooting just 30.2 percent beyond 15 feet (or 8.1 percent below those players' season averages).

A recent ESPN Insider article pegged Smart at No. 12 in a Top 20 of the 2014 rookie class. This sent some Celtics observers into a rage while suggesting the 10,000-foot view of Smart doesn't highlight his impact.

Make no mistake, Smart still is a work in progress, especially as a point guard. Stevens often runs him at the shooting guard position while allowing the likes of Evan Turner and Isaiah Thomas to share ball-handling responsibilities. Smart's production as pick-and-roll ball-handler has been atrocious and he needs to learn how to attack the basket off screens instead of settling for long jumpers or passing the ball out.

Consider this: Since Feb. 1, Smart is shooting just 32.5 percent from the floor and 23.9 percent from beyond the arc. And yet the Celtics still own a net rating (the difference between their offensive and defensive ratings, a per-100 possession measure of efficiency) that is nearly eight points better when he's on the court. In fact, Boston's offensive rating improbably dives 5.2 points without him on the floor.

Even as he works through his rookie struggles, Smart is a big reason for Boston's recent success. As his game develops, he'll be a big part of how quickly the Celtics return to legitimate contender status.