BOSTON — Marcus Smart’s night ended Wednesday with him stomping shirtless to the Boston Celtics’ locker room. Smart had earned his second technical foul — and an early exit — after unloading some frustration in the direction of referee Leroy Richardson late in the fourth quarter of Boston’s unsightly loss to the Detroit Pistons.
Smart peeled off his jersey on his way off the court in one final show of exasperation.
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But, a few hours earlier, he was all smiles when a reporter asked about his recent chat with Hall of Famer Gary Payton, who had professed his love for Smart’s game and given him The Glove’s seal of defensive approval.
Smart, in his quest to further muscle his way into Defensive Player of the Year consideration, now has the support of the last guard to win the honor nearly a quarter-century ago.
"That means a lot. Just being a defensive guard and really trying to change that stigma of guards don’t win the Defensive Player of the Year, or even in talks and contention of it,” said Smart. "He’s done it. And [Payton is] one of the greatest to do it. He really opened the door for guards to really really make a name for ourselves on the defensive end.”
Smart made an appearance on Yahoo! Sports’ “The Bounce” program earlier this week where Payton was a panelist and showered Smart with praise.
"It means everything. I think that it shows my hard work is paying off,” said Smart. "That my hard work isn’t going unnoticed. And, for a person of his caliber, his talent, and his reputation to really really acknowledge you as one of the greatest defenders in this era, and to really be on that platform, says a lot because he’s done it, he knows what it takes.
"He’s one of the greatest to ever do it. It’s a big, BIG big confidence booster.”
On the show, Payton told Smart, "Young fella, I love you. You play both ends of the floor, man. You remind me of myself a lot.” Later Payton added: "You go and take over. You go and be the one to take over and say, 'I'm going to get everybody motivated every time.' Because you've got it in you, you've got the dog in you, you'll get them over the top.”
Smart earned his first All-Defense first-team honor last season and was the top vote-getter among guards in Defensive Player of the Year balloting, but finished a distant eighth overall.
With the Celtics owning the fourth-best defensive rating at midseason, often leaning on undersized Smart to help patch the voids left by the departures of defensive-minded big men Al Horford and Aron Baynes, Smart and his teammates have stumped for him to earn consideration for the NBA’s top defensive honor.
How exactly can Smart get voters to consider something other than a traditional big man?
"Just gotta keep being me,” said Smart. "Unfortunately, a lot of those polls are popularity contests and I’m not the most popular guy — which is fine with me — but the numbers don’t lie. The impact that I make, doesn’t lie. And the things that I do don’t lie.
"Hopefully we look at the basketball aspects of it, what I really bring to the table and not just the popularity of it.”
Wednesday’s game against Detroit isn’t likely to end up on Smart’s DPOY candidate reel. The Pistons shot 60.3 percent overall and Derrick Rose routinely scorched Boston (even when Smart was practically inside his jersey).
Smart entered the game limiting opponents to 40.1 percent shooting overall, or 4.2 percent below their season average. Considering the caliber of opponent Smart is typically tasked with defending, that’s a staggering number and one of the best on the team (particularly among high-volume regulars).
Smart’s next challenge: Help corral the league MVP when the Celtics visit Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks on Thursday night. In typical Smart fashion, he’s eager for the opportunity.
In the first meeting between the Celtics and Bucks, Smart defended Antetokounmpo for a team-high 4:31 of matchup time. Smart limited the Greek Freak to five points on 1-for-2 shooting. Smart committed two shooting fouls but also forced three turnovers. Against all other Celtics defenders, Antetokounmpo went 7-for-11 shooting for 17 points with only one turnover.
What’s the secret for Smart, who gives up 8 inches in that matchup with Antetokounmpo?
"For me, it’s just you can’t get tired. Your motor has to be going all night,” said Smart. "When everybody else is tired you have to be the one that keeps going. Energizer bunny. And you have to try to wear him down as much as you can.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens hasn’t been bashful about putting Smart on Antetokounmpo. And he’s not the only one. In Smart's Team USA’s stint at the FIBA tournament in China this past summer, coach Gregg Popovich did the same.
Said Smart: “Pop was like, ‘You’re one of our best shots to guard Giannis. Do what you do.’”
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It’s likely Stevens will give him a similar pep talk on Thursday. And Smart is hoping its Antetokounmpo that leaves the court as mad as Smart did on Wednesday night.
It would certainly go a long way towards bolstering his case for that Defensive Player of the Year honor and making more than just Payton take notice of what he’s doing on the defensive end.
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