Trailing, 59-49, at the half, then-Celtics coach Brad Stevens figured he had nothing to lose by letting the 6-foot-4-inch Smart guard the 7-3 Porzingis.
Even though he was giving up nearly a foot in height, Smart was frothing at the mouth.
Stevens called the idea “kind of crazy, but [Smart] likes that kind of challenge.”
Smart did more than get under Porzingis’ skin; he unraveled Porzingis’ game. Smart fronted Porzing is relentless and refuses any pass. He knocked Porzingis off his seat and knocked potential rebounds out of his hands. He refused to let Porzingis use his height as an advantage, bending down to get in Porzingis’ knees on defense and reaching out to contest his jumper on offense.
The big man ended up so frustrated by the end of it that when Smart grabbed a rebound over him, Porzingis turned and fouled him for seemingly no reason.
The next season, Porzingis explained how that matchup shaped his progression.
“It was something I had never experienced before” Porzingis told Bleacher Report in 2017. “[Smart] got down on my knees, played tough defense and I wasn’t really ready for it.”
He added strength and size in the offseason, but he also went in search of new skills.
“I think my strength helps my game a lot, just having my poise on all those shots, even though a lot of those shots are contested,” Porzingis said at the time. “I’m just more comfortable in the post … with guards trying to get to my feet.”
The Porzingis who won over Knicks fans was the 7-3 shooter who could shoot from long range as easily as he could drive to the basket and pull down to the rim. He drained threes, caught lobs and cleaned up misses with tip-dunks. He was a highlight factory, affectionately dubbed the Unicorn.
What he has become seven years ago is a more refined offensive big man. His long-range shooting is still beguiling for a league that’s shooting more threes than ever, but he’s developed an ability to score and play from the elbow and in the post thanks to a fine-tuned turnaround jumper that’s become lethal and improved court vision that only comes eventually.
The turnaround jumper was something Porzingis had been looking for since coming into the league. That was a move immortalized Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas and Porzingis wanted to emulate that.
“[Nowitzki’s] the turnaround jump shot is basically unprotected, Porzingis told Newsday in 2016. “That’s one thing I can work on and maybe steal a move or two from him and add to my game. A signature move, I want to see if I’m able to do that.”
It’s a shot that requires footwork, balance and strength, and it took years for Porzingis to make it fully effective in games.
As a rookie, Porzingis went 20 of 53 on turnaround jumpers. The next season, 28 of 67. The 2017-18 season, his third, was a breakthrough.
The first shot of the season was a tone-setter. Porzingis drove the wing in transition, spotted a mismatch in former teammate Carmelo Anthony, turned into the paint and sealed Anthony under the basket. He fended off a double team with a high ball, then spun and heaved for a 6-foot jumper. The shot fell back, but the move felt like a mission statement for the season.
That year, Porzingis took a career-high 121 turnaround jumpers and made 55. Being able to score in the middle of the floor unlocked so much more for Porzingis. He was sixth in the league in elbow touches per game (5.4) and post-ups (8.0). Switches didn’t just stop at a jumper or a throw to the basket – he punished mismatches (which is almost everyone when you’re 7-3).
But a left ACL injury in February 2018 derailed his season and his progress.
His relationship with the Knicks soured when the team decided not to offer him a rookie extension while he was recovering from injury. He demanded a trade in 2019 while still sitting out. The Knicks sent him to Dallas, where he would be paired with rising star Luka Doncic under coach Rick Carlisle, and while the fit seemed to make sense at the time, it never clicked.
Doncic’s ball dominance made Porzingis an accessory. Instead of continuing to develop his game inside the 3-point line, Porzingis averaged a career-high 7.1 attempts from his first season in Dallas, then six per game the next season. The turnaround jumper he had developed was put on the back. He shot 80 in his first season with the Mavericks and made just 27. The next season he shot just 49 and made 22.
Porzingis was eventually traded to Washington in 2021, but when his run in Dallas ended, even Doncic admitted he had to make an effort to get Porzingis the ball where he wants to operate.
“We need to find him more in the post,” Doncic told the Dallas Morning News in 2021. “And he just needs to get going in the post.”
In his introductory press conference in Washington, Porzingis acknowledged how the style of play in Dallas may have limited him.
“It was an adjustment for me, too,” he said. “The way I played in New York, it was in-and-out, minus threes, in the post, in the paint. And then I had to make an adjustment playing with Luka and Coach Carlisle — which I was fine with. I’ll find a way for me to be effective. But when parts of my game weren’t used, I didn’t feel as comfortable as I wanted to.”
Washington gave Porzingis a bit of a fresh start. Last season was his first full season with the Wizards, and he showcased his entire repertoire. He took 5.5 threes per game. match, but the shooting felt less mandatory. He caught lobs and tip dunks that evoked flashbacks of his early days in New York.
But he also rediscovered the back-to-the-basket game that he had largely shelved. He shot 58 of 96 on turnaround jumpers – a ridiculous 60.4 percent.
The Wizards went 35-47 last season, but Porzingis averaged a career-high 23.2 points to go along with 8.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists. The combination of post prowess with the ability to shoot from the elbow and the 3-point line puts Porzingis in the company of big men like Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Domantas Sabonis and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Despite the reputation Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla earned for being in love with the three, the Celtics are running moves that should allow Porzingis to slide in seamlessly.
Many Celtics sets involve Robert Williams holding the ball at the top of the key in delay action while waiting for a teammate to come off a pindown screen in the corner. Williams would hand off the ball or make a read to pass if a cut opened up to the basket. It’s a common action that Porzingis dealt with a lot in Washington.
“Every year when you have a different team, you had to do things to play to the strength of that team,” Mazzulla said at Porzingis’ introduction. “So the addition of Kristaps will help us, I think, on our post, will help us against specific defenses that maybe we’ve had trouble with in the past and just give us a different look, which I think is important to continue to make these deep runs.”
By certain defenses, Mazzulla probably meant the Miami Heat’s zone, which baffled the Celtics over seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Heat, who used zone on more than 25 percent of their defensive possessions last season, were one of three teams to make zone part of their defensive identity, along with the Portland Trail Blazers (15 percent) and Toronto Raptors (10 ). percentage).
Through seven games, the Celtics couldn’t find an answer in Miami’s zone — even though it was right in front of them.
In Porzingis, they may have found one answer. In three games against Miami, he averaged 19.7 points. In three against Toronto, he averaged 24.3. In two against Portland, he averaged 30.
The Celtics were one of the catalysts for Porzingis developing a post game. Now they will have to work together to take advantage of it.
Julian Benbow can be contacted at [email protected].