In the last days of the season, it looked as if the Boston Celtics had finally turned a corner.
Gordon Hayward once again looked like the player Boston signed back in 2017, aggressive and confident with the ball in his hands. Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum
And, most importantly, with the postseason upon them, the Celtics were healthy.
Until they weren’t.
In their meaningless penultimate game — the Celtics had already clinched the fourth seed over the Indiana Pacers — of the regular season, Boston lost Marcus Smart to what appeared, at the time, to be a simple hip pointer. Smart has since been diagnosed with an oblique injury, and a serious one at that; the Celtics are expected to be without Smart’s services for at least four-to-six weeks
Smart’s absence could have a major impact on the Celtics, their attitude and their play going forward. As cliched as it may sound, Smart is the heart of this team and, at times, they have proved less than stellar when he is on the bench or unavailable.
His absence could be diminished in their first-round series with the Pacers, who themselves have been without their best player, Victor Oladipo, for much of the season. But, should they advance further, his absence and importance to the team could become apparent quickly.
Smart was the primary defensive option for Bojan Bogdanovic, the Pacers’ go-to option without Oladipo, and so the Celtics have already been affected by the injury. Brad Stevens and Co. must come up with a new defensive game plan and they have to do it quickly; Indiana may be short-handed this postseason, but they work hard and, with an excellent coach in Nate McMillian behind them, the Pacers will take advantage should Boston come in unprepared.
The further they advance, the greater the impact of Smart’s absence will become. The Milwaukee Bucks, their likely second-round opponent, is already a handful with Giannis Antetokounmpo. But, without Smart making it difficult for Antetokounmpo’s co-stars, Khris Middleton
Regardless of whatever situation the Celtics find themselves in, Smart’s secondary offensive creation and his knack for positive plays on both sides of the ball will be sorely missed, especially when Irving and Tatum hit the bench.
Meanwhile, the energy he has brought game-in and game-out could be the team’s biggest loss; unlike years past, the Celtics have struggled this season to respond when teams push them, make a run or just, in general, make things difficult on them. The times they have managed a positive response, Smart has been at the center of it, both from the bench and on the floor. Boston must find a way to step up in those situations without him.
Smart’s four-to-six week timetable would put him back on the court sometime near the end of the second round, if not later in the Conference Finals (should the Celtics even get there). In the meantime, the team will have to rely heavily on Terry Rozier, who starred last postseason but has struggled mightily this year, and Brown in his stead.
The Celtics are about as talented as any team in the NBA but, without their vocal leader in Smart, they could prove to be a major question mark. If Brown and Rozier can’t manage to step up behind him, and if the team, as a whole, can’t keep things rolling without Smart on the floor, expect an early postseason exit from Boston.
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