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These Two Celtics Have Hit “Playoff Mode” And Need To Be Prioritized

Deservedly so, as the Celtics head to Philadelphia for the two most important games of their 2023 season, a lot of the attention is towards their duo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Partially because of how much attention is on them, other Celtics have been able to shine. These two Celtics have more than taken to the occasion of late, and here’s exactly what they’ve been doing to help the team.

Marcus Smart

One of the biggest adjustments to playoff basketball is the increase in intensity. It’s the kind of adjustment that can lead to critical rebounds, unexpectedly contested shots, overall increases in physicality, etc… that can change the balance of a matchup relative to its regular season analogue.

Almost nobody navigates that switch better than Smart. Already a passionate player, his intensity allows him to be a natural leader for the Celtics. Relative to the regular season, he has increased his output in essentially every single statistical category – points, rebounds, shooting – 50% vs 38% in the regular season, and increases in three-point and free-throw percentage, and assists. He has also seen decreases in fouls and turnovers. It’s a numerical way of saying this: he has elevated every facet of his game for the playoffs and is playing harder and more efficiently than at any other point this season.

His intensity also serves to buoy the entire team and get the Celtics as a whole to produce at a higher level. A perfect example was towards the end of the game in Atlanta, on a possession where Boston absolutely needed a stop. He intensely defended a Trae Young inbounds pass, took a hit to the groin, got right back up and rattled Trae, and two attempts later, the pass was botched, Boston had the ball, and the Celtics were well on their way to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. This kind of influence propagated throughout the playoffs can decide a championship.

In addition to the mere intensity increase, Marcus has been facilitating extremely well. The precision of his passes, the timeliness, and the quickness – which allows for misdirection of the defense’s attention – elevates the entire offense.

Robert Williams III

Williams isn’t seeing an explosion in stats this postseason, but his impact goes well beyond the raw numbers. While he’s had his moments throughout the playoffs, in the last three games, he has started to carve out an essential role in a successful Celtics team.

In the last three games, Williams has had a positive +/-, and it has been obvious that the Celtics present a bigger threat when he’s on the floor. Relative to the regular season, he has improved his shooting vastly and is shooting at a whopping 90%. He’s not doing this by suddenly sinking jumper after jumper, rather, he’s avoiding unnecessary shots, sticking to his strengths inside, and taking high-percentage shots. He’s avoiding being a liability at the free-throw line and has made five of his seven free throws so far in the playoffs.

His defensive presence is the biggest threat. The blocks and steals are considerable, and he’s stealing at a higher rate than in the regular season, but his impact goes well beyond that. When on his game, his broad field of vision, combined with his length and jumping power, give him a large defensive range. The biggest impact that he has had when on the floor has been in the possessions where the ball doesn’t go anywhere near him.

The mismatch he creates against a majority of big men (Embiid this series will be a trickier proposition in this sense) prevents offenses from even wanting to venture inside. He’s also rebounding at a high level, and on the few occasions that teams choose to take a chance against him, they’re very unlikely to get a second.

Offensively, as usual, he uses his jumping power and impeccable timing to coordinate with the rest of the offense in alley-oops, is able to convert on layups and dunks, and even makes the occasional jump shot. Probably the biggest playoff-time evolution for him is something that, if taken more advantage of, can add a new dimension to the Celtics’ offense. He’s been assisting a fair bit more than usual in the last few games, and his ability to pass from under the basket makes predicting the course of Boston’s plays even more difficult than it already is.

Simply put, he needs to play more minutes, especially towards the end of the game. Despite how effective he was in game one against the Sixers, he only played 19 minutes, and without him, the Philly offense opened up considerably. With him on the floor, interior offense becomes more challenging, and perimeter offense becomes easier to predict. On the offensive end, the battle on the glass and on the inside become more straightforward, and the threat of him passing from under the net increases the efficacy of the perimeter game.

The Bottom Line

Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon would be on this list if they hadn’t already been in playoff mode starting in mid-March. The depth and Smart and Williams have shown new (at least to this season) dimensions to their game that the Celtics need to take advantage of to grab the series win in Philly.

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