Here are the takeaways as Marcus Smart and the Celtics routed the Heat 122-92, their latest in a series of solid wins.
1. After months of disappointing basketball, the Celtics are rounding into shape just before the Feb. 10 trade deadline — leaving Brad Stevens in the unenviable position of having to choose a direction. Should he break up a team that is suddenly brimming with good vibes, as players turn the sideline into a mosh pit when Bruno Fernando buries a 3-pointer in garbage time of a 30-point blowout over the East-leading Heat? Or should he tinker with a roster that needed nine wins in 13 games against mediocre competition (including the injury-riddled Heat) to simply lift itself two games over .500?
The guess here is that Stevens tinkers slightly — perhaps it’s time to move Dennis Schröder to give Payton Pritchard more shine? — but ultimately leaves the roster largely intact. One thing, however, is clear: Stevens can’t move Marcus Smart.
Not now. Not when Smart is playing some of the best basketball of his career. Not after he held his assignments completely scoreless in Atlanta. Not after his lineups outscored opponents by 118 points in Smart’s last 144 minutes. Not when he makes zone-breaking look this effortless.
A not-insignificant portion of the Celtics’ fanbase has been clamoring to trade Smart for most of the season. A case could have been made before this most recent stretch, if only because Smart likely would have brought back the most value of any player not named Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown.
Now? Trading Smart would be admitting defeat on a season that suddenly looks a little more promising after a 10-6 month of January, particularly as Tatum starts his seemingly annual ramp-up for the second half of the schedule. Stevens faces some difficult decisions, but it’s hard to imagine Smart going anywhere.
2. The Celtics played just an eight-man rotation for most of the game until the end, when Ime Udoka emptied the bench. Udoka said he liked the way Josh Richardson and Grant Williams were playing with the second unit, and he didn’t want to mess with their success. Romeo Langford, Payton Pritchard, and Aaron Nesmith all played fewer than 10 minutes.
3. Jayson Tatum has been obliterating opponents recently — a crucial part of the Celtics’ success — but he scored just 20 points on 7-for-15 shots. Jaylen Brown made scoring look easy against several of Miami’s overmatched defenders, but he too finished with a relatively pedestrian good game — 29 points on 11-for-19 shooting.
The Celtics spread the wealth: Six players scored in double figures, and 24 of the Celtics’ 44 field goals were assisted.
“I love every last bit of it,” Smart said. “Especially with the adversity we’ve been dealing with this whole season, the up and down, not being consistent. So for us to finally start to make that walk in the right direction is big for us confidence wise, team wise, individually wise.
“It’s something that we needed and it’s happening at the right time for us and we just got to continue it.”
4. Per Udoka, the Heat play a zone defense more than all but three teams in the NBA (and watching the Heat, third feels low). The Celtics have had issues against zone defenses, which is a little confusing: They have a lot of players who theoretically could make an opponent pay for playing zone.
Those players came through on Monday — most notably Tatum and Brown, but also Smart.
“We like Marcus there as well as Jaylen and Jayson, but we want him to be a decision-maker in the middle, flashing there and finding guys high-low or weak side,” Udoka said. “Had some open shots and made enough to get them out of the zone, but we really want to lean on our defense to get stops and get out and run and not have to play against a set defense or a zone every time.”
5. Max Strus might not have had the same opportunities in Boston, but at this point we can say with a lot of certainty that the Celtics absolutely shouldn’t have let him go. The Celtics cut the sharpshooting wing after inking him to a two-way deal prior to the 2019-20 season, opting instead to bring on Javonte Green (who was mildly productive before he was dealt to the Bulls) and Tacko Fall (who sold a lot of jerseys).
Strus finished with 27 points on 9-for-19 shooting. All of his field goals were 3-pointers. The Celtics are 23rd in 3-point percentage and and 11th in attempts.
6. Marcus Smart was thrilled to see former teammate Brandon Bass at the game as the Celtics honored players from the 2010s. Bass played for the Celtics from 2012-2015.
“To be honest, I thought I would never see Brandon again once he left,” Smart said. “So it was really, really good to see him and I think I told [NBC Sports Boston’s] Abby [Chin], he hasn’t changed a bit. He told me he was still ready, waiting on a 10-day.
“But no, it was really good to see him, and he was a good vet when I was there and he really helped me get through my rookie year.”
How did Bass help?
“Just talking to me,” Smart said. “After games watching film with me and showing me the things that he sees on the floor and things that I can work on and how to maneuver through this league and what to do early on and what not to do early on. So he was my vet, he gave me a hard time here and there, but it was all good.”
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