To fully understand the absurdity of Marcus Smart's offensive explosion over the final minute of the first quarter in Sunday's game against the Orlando Magic, remember exactly one week ago, Smart was at risk of challenging for the worst 3-point shooting season in NBA history.
Smart hit three consecutive 3-pointers over a 53-second span in the first quarter Sunday night and finished 5-of-9 overall beyond the arc. Over the past five games, Smart is shooting 48.1 percent from 3-point land while connecting on 13 of 27 attempts. That has caused his season 3-point percentage to rise from 19.5 percent on Jan. 23 to 26.3 percent a little more than week later.
Diminished greatly by Boston's second-half implosion in which the Celtics went stagnant and were content to chuck a franchise record 46 3-pointers, Smart matched his career high by scoring 26 points in Sunday's 119-114 loss to the Magic at the Amway Center.
The loss ended Boston's five-game winning streak and left a sour taste in Boston's mouth after leading by as much as 14 with under 20 minutes to play in the game. Smart tried to single-handedly will the Celtics back in the closing moments, and his four-point play with 14 seconds to go helped make it a one-possession game again after Boston trailed by as much as 11 with 61 seconds to play. But there would be no miracle comeback.
The silver lining might be Smart's play. In the five games since Winter Storm Jonas forced a one-day postponement of a Celtics-76ers matchup and allowed Smart to engage in an extended post-practice shooting session, Smart has averaged 15 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.8 steals over 29 minutes per game.
Over those past five games, the Celtics own a net rating of plus-15.1 when Smart is on the court, including an offensive rating of 109.4, a number that would rank a team third in the NBA this season if maintained. Smart, with a full month of game action under his belt now since returning from an 18-game absence earlier in the season because of a knee injury, has cemented his role on Boston's improved bench unit. Utilizing space created by floor-stretching bigs, Smart seems more comfortable both attacking the basket off the dribble and shooting open 3-point looks.
Trailing in transition late in the first quarter of Sunday's game, Smart got an open straightaway look and splashed his first 3-pointer of the night. Next trip down, with Boston running one of its now-familiar stack actions, Smart popped behind the arc off a pick-and-roll and drilled another wide-open straightaway triple.
His defender didn't stray when the Celtics ran the same play on the next offensive possession, but it didn't matter. With the game clock winding down, Smart got a tiny bit of separation with help from a Kelly Olynyk screen and threw up a 31-foot triple from about a step outside the Magic's midcourt logo. Of course, it found nothing but net.
Neither Smart nor his teammates shot the 3 with much efficiency from there, but Smart's exploits the past five games are hard to ignore. In three of those five games, he has hit at least three 3-pointers. With the exception of an off night against Denver on Wednesday, Smart is averaging 17.8 points on 51 percent shooting in the other four games.
Maybe even more impressive was his defense. Smart's 14 steals over the past five games are a reminder of his typically feisty nature. Smart has hounded opposing ball handlers recently, forcing turnovers and generating transition opportunities thanks to his tenacity.
But it's his offensive exploits that have drawn attention.
"He’s starting to feel better about shooting it," said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "He didn’t get much time in the gym when he was [injured], just because of the nature of his injury. ... So now he’s clearly in a better rhythm than when he first came back. Probably more importantly, the guys that are playing with him, I think they’ve adjusted nicely to each other, but it took them a while to. Especially that [reserve] group. ... Marcus is a guy that adds value to the group, defensively, for sure. And then, the way we like to play, I like having multiple ball handlers on the floor at once. And he can play off the ball, post a little, or play with it."
Playing alongside fellow ball handler Evan Turner has been good for Smart. When Turner drives and draws a crowd, it opens things up for Smart, as evidenced by how Turner has assisted on half of the 14 assisted makes for Smart over the past five games. But Smart also has 10 unassisted makes in that span and has been able to create opportunities for himself off the dribble. Late in the first quarter last week against the 76ers, Smart probed coming off a high pick-and-roll, then pulled up for a free throw line jumper. He repeated the sequence in the fourth quarter.
"I just think we play with energy [when Smart is on the floor]," said Turner. "Smart, he’s gonna force the issue in general. He’s gonna make something happen. He breaks the door open and I just walk in."
Celtics fans often ponder what Smart's ceiling is. When he's playing like he has recently, he's the next Russell Westbrook. When he's struggling with his shot, there are some who lament that he hasn't quite lived up to the hype of a No. 6 pick. Most Boston fans remain bullish on Smart, hoping he'll live up to those lofty CARMELO projections from the preseason that compared his career arc to that of 2011 James Harden and 2012 Paul George (heck, they might even settle for 1999 Chauncey Billups).
And if Smart keeps shooting like this, those fans will gladly settle for 2012 Steph Curry.