Marcus Smart gets to the point

Marcus Smart dished eight first-half assists in a preseason win over the Knicks. Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images

BOSTON -- Boston Celtics point guard Marcus Smart made his final assist of the night his prettiest.

As Boston broke out in transition, the New York Knicks rushed to get bodies back. The visitors essentially had a full four-man box around David Lee running the center of the floor, but Smart saw the tiniest of openings and threaded a bounce pass from just beyond the 3-point arc that allowed Lee to complete a layup while getting fouled.

Much has been made in the preseason about how the Celtics have thrown the keys of the first-unit car to Smart and allowed him to be the team's primary point guard. Many wondered if he could be a serviceable ball handler and run an offense. On Thursday, Smart showed potential while matching a career high with nine assists during Thursday's 99-85 win over the Knicks at TD Garden.

Smart, who added seven points and two rebounds, put up eight of his assists in the first half, the first four of which went to Tyler Zeller. Smart showcased an ability to push the ball ahead in transition and create shots for his teammates in the pick-and-roll. It was an encouraging sign from a player who had only 12 assists over his first three exhibition appearances.

"He's always been able to see the floor, that's never been an issue with him," said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "He's always understood the game. But getting used to the NBA game, and getting used to small spaces you have to work through to get passes, that's where he's gotten a little bit better. And our bigs did him a favor and ran the floor for a few of those assists -- Tyler specifically -- but he's improving. That's what he's doing. That's what he's supposed to do."

The Celtics have often paired Smart with David Lee, giving the team's first unit a slick passing big to help create shots. But what we saw Thursday was a more aggressive Smart, who looked to create for teammates while coming off the pick-and-roll.

"I'm just trying to keep the defender on my back," said Smart. "I'm too strong not to be able to get into the paint when I want to. I'm just trying to focus on getting in the lane and making plays for others."

Smart's preseason stat line doesn't pop -- he's averaging 7.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists over 23.9 minutes per game -- but Boston owns a net rating (the difference between its offensive [111.8] and defensive ratings [93.7] per 100 possessions) of plus-18.1 when he's on the court. He's kept the team at a cranked pace (104.47 possessions per 48 minutes) and kept his turnovers manageable (seven in four games).

Smart has already distinguished himself as an All-NBA-caliber defender and he's shown glimpses of expanding his offensive game, especially by being a more consistent 3-point shooter during summer league. But it's his ability to helm the offense as the team's top point guard that will dictate the success of his 2015-16 season.

"I think the biggest thing is he’s going to continue to have the ball and just making the right plays in every right moment," said Stevens. "It’s a lot easier to talk about than to do. He has kind of that -- he’s a big-time competitor, so he’s got that killer instinct to take and make big shots. And being able to discern when that time is will continue to be something that he is working on. But he’s been good."

Lee likes what he's seen from Smart.

"I didn’t get to see a whole lot of him [with Smart] being on the East Coast last year," said Lee. "And he’s one intense guy. Defensively, he takes on a challenge, and, offensively, shoots the ball better than I thought he did and can really get into the paint and make plays. He’s a better passer than I thought he was too. I kind of almost saw him in college, I saw him play more, and saw him as more of an off-guard type of guy. But as a point he’s proven a lot to me."

Injury Report: The Shins

Isaiah Thomas sat out his second game this week due to a left leg injury. Stevens considered playing Thomas on Thursday, but the team has been extra cautious with its star reserve as he works his way back from a bruised left shin and knee tendinitis.

"Isaiah has still got that bruise. The tendinitis has subsided quite a bit, as far as the pain," Stevens said before Thursday's game. "I think, again, he’s close to being ready if he doesn’t play tonight. He could even play [Friday] night [against the 76ers in Manchester, New Hampshire]. But he went through a workout and it’s just a matter of if we -- obviously it being the last two games of the preseason, I think we should be smart with him over the next two nights."

Fellow Tacoma, Washington, native Avery Bradley suffered a bruised right shin when he bumped into a courtside chair while chasing a loose ball in the third quarter. Bradley wore an ice pack over the injury and did not return. After the game, he noted he was sore but Stevens did not appear overly concerned about the injury.

The Celtics gave third-year big man Kelly Olynyk a night of rest.

Loose Balls: Porzingis, Cubs, Birthday

• Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis put up eight points (on 4-of-9 shooting), eight rebounds and four assists over 19 minutes. Asked about the Knicks rookie, Brad Stevens said: "I think he’s a high-ceiling guy. I think he could be a really good player, there’s no question about it. He was picked fourth for a reason. I think he’s a great fit for how they play. I think you could throw him in with a handful of other guys from the draft and say we really don’t know how it’s all going to turn out, but he sure looks like he’s going to be one of the better ones." Jared Sullinger won the head-to-head battle late in the game, but he, too, praised Porzingis. "He’s a good player. Athletic. It’s going to take him some time to get used to this game. He’s going to be a good player, though."

• Stevens' beloved Chicago Cubs were swept out of the National League Championship Series by the New York Mets on Wednesday night. How is Stevens doing? "Hey, I will say this: It was fun to follow," said Stevens. "And I said this when I got [to Boston], it was good that I didn’t have an [American League] team when I got here because about three months after I moved here the Red Sox won the World Series and I jumped right on the bandwagon there. But it was fun to follow and there’s always 2016."

• Stevens celebrated his 39th birthday on Thursday. Asked if his players got him any gifts, Stevens said, "No. They offered to sing but I’ve heard them sing. I’m good."