BOSTON — The backcourt was the one strength the Boston Celtics could rely on at the start of this postseason. It had been a key to Boston's 48 wins in the regular season.
All that changed quickly, though, in the fourth quarter of Game 1 against the Atlanta Hawks when Avery Bradley suffered a strained hamstring. Head coach Brad Stevens has deemed the 25-year-old, arguably the best two-way player on the roster, "extremely unlikely" to return to action at any point in the first-round series.
That diagnosis sent Stevens looking down his bench to replace Bradley's tenacious defense and reliable outside shooting.
Marcus Smart, 22, was the choice in Game 2, but, as has been the case for much of the 2015-16 season, the 6'4" guard was only able to reliably contribute on one end of the floor: defense. While Jeff Teague was held in check for most of the night, Smart shot 1-of-11 from the field and scored just three points in Boston's 89-72 defeat.
Facing a 2-0 series deficit, there is plenty on the line for the young Celtics, and the potential effects go beyond just this first-round series. Smart and Boston's other inexperienced pieces must find their offensive production—not only to give the Celtics a chance to come back against Atlanta but to prove they can be a part of Boston's growth into a contender in the years to come.
All-Star Isaiah Thomas and Bradley combined all year to form one of the best starting tandems in the Eastern Conference. Evan Turner was a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year contender on the wing, and second-year guard Smart regularly provided feisty defense and intangibles off the pine.
There was even some emergency depth for Stevens in rookies R.J. Hunter and Terry Rozier. Ahead of the team's first-round matchup with the Hawks, Boston seemed to have the personnel to match up well with the Atlanta backcourt of Teague and Kent Bazemore.
But these kinds of offensive meltdowns from Smart and other young Celtics have been the rule, rather than the exception, in the past two postseasons. Boston shot 42 percent from the field while being swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers during the first round of last year's playoffs.
That number has dropped to 34 percent against the Hawks in two straight playoff defeats with Bradley sidelined and forward Kelly Olynyk (shoulder) hobbled.
With a roster crunch looming and general manager Danny Ainge hungry to make significant upgrades to the roster, you can bet Smart and Co. will be under the microscope for the remainder of the postseason as their struggles come into focus.
Smart's Lack of Offensive Growth
Shooting was one of the main knocks on Smart's game when the Celtics selected him No. 6 in the 2014 NBA draft out of Oklahoma State. He never hit above 30 percent from three-point range over his two years in college, making his 33 percent mark from downtown during his rookie year an encouraging sign. Overall, he averaged 7.8 points over 27 minutes per game, despite hitting a lackluster 37.4 percent of his field-goal attempts.
While many praised Smart for his defensive pressure and IQ during his first campaign, offense was an area in which the Boston brass was looking for growth in year two. He did improve his scoring average (9.1 PPG), but his efficiency took a disappointing step back.
The reserve point guard sunk just 34.8 percent of his shots from the field in 2015-16 and a mere 25 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc, a steep drop-off from his rookie year.
Four of Smart's 8.7 shots per game also came from three-point range, further compounding the problem since so much of his offensive game is dependent on his jumper. That trend continued in Game 2, as five of Smart's 10 misses came from three-point range.
Show or Go
Smart's accuracy issues helped make Boston one of the league's worst three-point shooting teams (27th overall) for the second straight season. However, he was far from the only culprit.
Hunter (30.2 percent), Rozier (22.2 percent) and James Young (23.1 percent) all struggled from three-point range during the regular season, making them unreliable options for Stevens against the Hawks to fill Bradley's void offensively.
While all of those guards, including Smart, are under 22 years of age, Ainge may not have the time or roster space to wait on them to develop over the next few seasons.
The Celtics GM has patiently amassed draft picks and salary-cap space over the past three seasons, all while constructing a surprise 48-win team. With three first-round draft picks in the 2016 NBA draft and 11 players signed for the 2016-17 season, there isn't going to be much room on the Celtics roster for rookie upgrades and major free-agent additions.
That reality will likely push the Boston front office toward a potential blockbuster trade, both to improve the team and clear up some roster space.
Smart could be an appealing trade chip as part of a bigger package for a star player, if he goes to a team that is willing to be patient with his offense and wants a proven defensive stopper. His performance in a starring role against Atlanta now could go a long way toward determining how much value he has—not just to Boston's future but the league at large.
On a smaller scale, the same evaluation looms for players such as Hunter and Rozier who will continue to see minutes off the bench in this series with Bradley sidelined. Are they expendable parts or promising young role players? Ainge and his staff will try to determine that answer during this series as they perform against premier competition.
In order for Boston to take a step forward as a franchise, one thing is clear: It must improve offensively. Whether Smart and his young teammates can be part of that solution remains to be seen.
"These are unbelievable opportunities," Brad Stevens explained Thursday. "We're talking about R.J. Hunter, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart all being under 22 years old and playing out in the playoffs. This is a great, great opportunity that you work for all your life, and let alone, a lot of our other young guys."