The Boston Celtics may have lost a heartbreaker on Wednesday night to the LA Clippers, but Marcus Smart pulled into pole position for Defensive Player of the Year.
Smart, who's coming off his first All-Defensive Team nod a season ago, has upped his game to another level in the early part of the year. His impact on the defensive end of the floor for Boston has been invaluable for years, but it's time we truly start to take notice.
According to NBA Stats, the Celtics have a defensive rating of 99.2 with Smart on the court so far this season. With him out of the game, it shoots up to 103.7. While those numbers show his effect on the team, you start to appreciate what he's doing defensively when you look at what he's done guarding opposing All-Stars this year.
Luka Doncic has been almost unguardable this season, torching teams on a nightly basis. Doncic even had a great stat line in a loss to the Celtics early this year, posting a game-high 34 points to go along with nine assists and six rebounds. With Smart guarding him, however, he was kept in check. According to NBA.com's matchup data, Smart guarded Doncic for 25.1 possessions - Doncic went 1-for-5 from the field for four points.
On Wednesday night, Smart took on the challenge of guarding the reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. On 23.3 possessions, Smart held Leonard to just three points on 1-for-7 shooting from the field.
What separates Smart from the rest of the Defensive Player of the Year candidates early on is that he isn't just guarding guards and wings at a high level. He has been holding his own against big men too.
Smart held Giannis Antetokounmpo to just five points and forced him into three turnovers over 16.9 possessions, for example. He also held New York Knicks forward Julius Randle to four points and forced him into three turnovers over 15.0 possessions.
And in the aforementioned performance against Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks, Smart and the Celtics' defence held Kristaps Porzingis to just four points on 1-for-11 shooting with efforts like this in the post:
Opposing teams are shooting just 33.1% when Smart is guarding them. He's been as stingy as anyone in the league. It's not just the numbers that are doing the talking for Smart either, opposing players are starting to take notice. After the Celtics defeated the Cavs earlier this year, Kevin Love talked about how unique of a defender Smart is.
"Oh, he's tough...What they lack in size, they make up in effort," Love said of Smart via Yahoo Sports. "Like, they'll put him on the top player on every team. He'll guard LeBron (James), he'll guard Giannis (Antetokounmpo), he'll guard James Harden, he'll guard Steph Curry. I mean, that's what he gets paid to do.
"He's really tough out there. He can guard anybody 1 through 5, and he's a difference-maker for the team."
When you factor in what Smart is doing to opposing guards, wings, bigs and superstars, he's no question the front-runner for the Defensive Player of the Year to this point in the season. Smart was always in the conversation as one of the better defenders in the league. It's time for him to be recognized as the best.
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