STORY OF THE GAME: Marcus Smart is back, thank God he never left
I remember the chills that shot up my spine when Ray Allen hit that corner three to send game six of the 2013 NBA Finals to overtime. I got the same sensation when LeBron James nailed a pull-up jumper in the final minute of game seven to seal his second straight title. There was something so special about being the building for a game of such magnitude with so many legendary players. Even as an unbiased observer with no emotional ties to either team, it was a mentally draining experience and a very uplifting one. With all that was on the line, it was easily the best sports environment I had ever been in.
Until last night. The stakes weren't nearly the same and an early season #7/#11 college basketball matchup is nothing like seeing LeBron and Tim Duncan's legacies get put on the line, but I couldn't ask for a better night at Gallagher-Iba Arena for my first real home game at OSU. There's an energy level inside of that building that reaches far beyond words. It's a mystifying experience when the crowd gets rowdy, and Marcus Smart gave everyone plenty of reasons to lose their minds last night.
Smart is such an engaging personality whose hard-nosed attitude and all-out style of play lends itself to recognition from smart crowds that appreciate the effort. The defensive tone that he sets on each possession is palpable, and the crowd feeds off of him as he stays step-for-step with whoever has the misfortune of being guarded by him on a given night. When he comes from out of nowhere to swipe the ball away from an unsuspecting ball-handler or crouches down in a defensive stance and peers into the eyes of a hapless opponent, the fans in GIA raise their intensity right along with him. It's a symbiotic relationship.
That's enough to make Gallagher-Iba one of the toughest arenas in the country to play in, but that wasn't enough for Smart last night. No. Instead he decided to go on a Stephen Curry-like tear in the first half, pulling up for three any time he was given a sliver of space, with each swish of the net fueling the crowd even more, only for the crowd to turn around and throw that fuel right back at an already fired up Smart, proliferating his memorable stretch.
Smart played to the crowd, throwing his arms up into the air each time down the floor, jamming three fingers into his skull like Carmelo Anthony at Madison Square Garden and letting out a warrior-like roar as a hustle play by Kamari Murphy on the defensive end led to a stoppage play.
Smart finished with a career high 39 points on 11-of-21 shooting with five threes and 16 free throw attempts. Smart was stepping into three point shots more confidently than I've ever seen him before and he clearly made it a point to take over this game.
After Memphis tied it up at 16 with 11:33 left in the first half, Smart checked back in and delivered 12 points on the next four possessions. For those that struggle with math, that means Smart had the most efficient four possession stretch possible, drilling three straight threes while getting fouled on another three-point attempt. Smart tried to make it 15 points in five trips, but he missed his deep heat check. No worries, though, since he drew three defenders on the play and opened up the paint for the easy offensive putback for Brian Williams.
It's funny. After the first three games of the season against cupcake opponents in which Smart was passive and mostly looking to get others involved, I figured that it may be hard for him to get the National Player of the Year Award this season simply because he doesn't play the same game as a Jabarri Parker or Julius Randle in that he's not going to put up big scoring numbers every night. That's not his game. He takes what comes to him.
Well, that theory was flipped on its head in this game. Smart recognized that he needed to come up big in this game and delivered in every way imaginable. I'm sure there will be games throughout the year when Smart scores 13 points because he isn't gunning for shots (looking at you, TCU), but after watching him tonight, it's hard to imagine Smart not getting around 16-20 every night.
A big part of that is that the Pokes aren't asking Marcus to score all of his points as a ball-handler. They've incorporated some great offensive sets that get Smart on the move and into spot-up shooting situations. We've seen some of these plays before, but last season Smart was reluctant to shoot off the catch if a defender was closing out on him and instead flowed into pick-and-rolls. But now that he's more comfortable with his shot, we're seeing beautiful things like this.
The Pokes run a decoy curl screen for Brian Williams here with Michael Cobbins setting the screen. But instead of rolling to the rim, Cobbins stays at the block and sets a cross screen to free Smart, who darts to the wing for a great catch-and-shoot look at a three. Kamari Murphy does a great job of stepping into the pass and Smart drills the first three of his monster run.
Here's another great set that Oklahoma State ran to get Smart the ball on the move.
Brian Williams and Michael Cobbins set a staggered set of screens for Smart to come from the opposite baseline to loop to the free throw line, but Memphis shoots the gap and prevents the catch for Smart. But here's where Travis Ford's brilliance shines through. There are several options built in as the primary read is taken away. Cobbins goes right to the block to screen-the-screener, getting Brian Williams free for the catch on the wing. From there, Murphy, who passes it Williams, sets a flare screen for Smart, getting him wide open at the top of the key. He (barely) misses the shot, but a poor closeout leads to three free throws for Smart.
There are also some very subtle things that Smart does to get himself open on set plays. Here is a play that Ford called to get Smart an open cut to the basket for an alley-oop.
When Smart passes this ball to Markel Brown on the left wing here, watch how he nonchalantly walks towards the rim while directing Williams to clear out the weakside corner. Once he sees Williams clear through and notices that Murphy's man is not sagging into the paint, he accelerates, uses the screen and gets right to the rim for the dunk.
Smart did a bit of everything in this game. He shot the ball as well as ever, he got into the paint and drew fouls, he competed defensively in man-to-man situations, he did that Marcus Smart thing where he figures out what is going to happen three steps before it does and then beats the offense to the spot for a steal and even he manned the backline of the zone a few times while boxing his man out of the play. It was the most complete game I've seen from a college player since Anthony Davis was at Kentucky.
It was as captivating a performance as I've ever seen live. Of course, it's a little easier to feel that way when you have a personal connection to the team and the university, but there's truly nothing like the GIA experience. And most of all, I'm spoiled to be here to experience GIA with Marcus Smart, the best player in the country, in uniform, representing the same university on his jersey that I do with my winter fleece.
How cool is that?
MARCUS SMART THE LEADER
This is unbelievable.
Just in case you were curious:
Stevie Clark pre-Smart talk: 0-of-1 from the field, three turnovers.
Stevie Clark post-Smart talk: 9 points, 3-of-3 from the field (all from deep), three assists, two steals, two turnovers.
DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS
As good as Marcus Smart was last night offensively, the team defense that Oklahoma State played was just as awesome to see live. They were on a string all night long, executing their coverages to perfection with the exception of a couple of hiccups. This is an extremely well coached team that seems to have embraced some of the recent trends in the NBA, mainly downing and showing on side pick-and-rolls to keep guards from getting into the middle of the floor.
I think this was one of Oklahoma State's best defensive possessions of the night. What's initially obvious is that this team doesn't make anything easy on opponents. From ball pressure to Marcus Smart's maniacal ball denial, Memphis had to take 20 seconds off the shot clock just to get to their primary action on this play. And once they got there, the Pokes dismantled it with scheme. You can see Smart pointing to a spot on the floor where he wants his big to be positioned. He rejects the screen and goes underneath and is still quick enough to get a good contest. Memphis wants to drive the ball there, but the Cowboys didn't let them and instead forced a poor shooter into the worst shot in basketball.
Here's another example of the Pokes locking in defensively. Watch how Kamari Murphy shows on the screen and forces the ball-handler to the wing while Smart fights back into the play. Meanwhile, the backline of the defense is zoned off, preventing Memphis from taking advantage of the 4-on-3 situation that hedging presents. This came right after one of Smart's threes, so the defensive intensity was at an all-time high.
Those backline defenders were tremendous in this game. Everyone was helping everyone. Even Smart had a monster block from the weakside. This play illustrates the amount of effort and attention to detail that the Cowboys had defensively in this game.
Cobbins is a bit too aggressive with his closeout and Memphis does a good job of attacking it. With Cobbins being OSU's best rim protector, this is a situation that would cause problems for a lot of teams, but not the Pokes. Watch those help defenders. Williams digs down and swipes at the ball, Smart gets into help position with his body and Murphy skies over the top for the monster block. And to top it off, Williams makes a tremendous hustle play to give OSU possession of the ball.
Oklahoma State's perimeter defenders are well aware of the help they have behind them, so you'll see this happen often this year. Watch how Smart funnels his man to the baseline here while Murphy rotates over to protect the rim. This could lead to a disastrous offensive rebounding chance or even a lob if the help isn't there for the helper, but the dependable Williams seals his man on the baseline, making this a pretty perfect defensive stance.
Oklahoma State's defensive preparation for this game really impressed me. As Robert pointed out to me, Marcus Smart has been organizing players-only scouting sessions at his apartment on the night before games. It undoubtedly allows the team to get really familiar with their opponent, and last night it got to the point where Smart was mimicking Memphis playcalls to his defense. Watch here as Memphis point guard Joe Jackson flexes his bicep, which leads Marcus to do his best Jeremy Smith impersonation. I saw Marcus make this signal at least three times last night, and each time it led to a deflected pass and a broken up play.
The Cowboys are loaded defensively with athletic players that can pressure the ball and protect the rim. Smart and Williams are two incredible one-on-one defenders that see things before they happen when they are playing off the ball, and just about every other rotation regular for Ford is dependable defensively. Markel and Nash are solid on the ball, Stevie Clark is a pest that has irritated opponents with his pressure and Murphy and Cobbins are both mobile enough to hedge on screens, recover and protect the paint. While Smart's offensive explosion will dominate the headlines, what the Cowboy defense did to a very talented and athletic Memphis team last night was very encouraging and extremely impressive.