In his absence, Smart, who is 6 foot 3, has spent more time guarding opposing centers than he would prefer. After he averaged 1.7 steals a game last season, when he won the N.B.A.’s Defensive Player of the Year Award, Smart is averaging just 1.1 steals this season, a dip that can be attributed to his playing out of position.
“Because I’m guarding the post so much, you don’t want to gamble too much,” Smart said. “It’ll be different when Rob is out there and I can gamble. But without him, I have to be solid for my team and control that back line.”
The Celtics were all about grinding opponents to smithereens last season, when they led the league in defensive rating. Ime Udoka, who was in his first season as the team’s coach, made defense his priority, and it was a winning strategy. In the playoffs, Boston advanced to the N.B.A. finals before falling to Golden State in six games.
Mazzulla, though, was made interim coach on the eve of training camp after the Celtics suspended Udoka for the season for unspecified “violations of team policies.” (According to two people with knowledge of the situation who were not authorized to discuss it, Udoka had a relationship with a female subordinate.)
But while Mazzulla was an assistant under Udoka last season, he has not tried to replicate Udoka’s approach. Instead, Mazzulla has done things his own way — by recognizing the team’s unique offensive abilities. Entering Tuesday, the Celtics were leading the league in scoring, 3-pointers, 3-point percentage and offensive rating.
It is also worth noting that, as a part of Boston’s off-season trade for Malcolm Brogdon, the Celtics gave up Daniel Theis, a defense-minded center. The trade, of course, was worth it: Brogdon, a point guard, has been terrific coming off the bench, and Theis has yet to play for the Indiana Pacers this season because of an injured knee.