Can Wolverine Smart rescue the Celtics from the Bucks again?

Can Wolverine Smart rescue the Celtics from the Bucks again?

BOSTON — After the Boston Celtics’ gritty seven-game victory over the Milwaukee Bucks ignited the team’s improbable playoff run a year ago, veteran big man Al Horford huddled his Celtics teammate with a message about Marcus Smart.

“I told him this last year and I told our whole team it: I felt like he was the difference for us in the playoffs against [the Bucks] last year,” said Horford. “He does so much for our team. He has a big impact on everything that we do."

Last March, Smart underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb and the team offered a timeline of 6-8 weeks for his return to basketball activities. Five weeks later, Smart was back on the court in Game 5 against the Bucks and famously dove onto the floor just seconds into his first shift.

Brad Stevens said the moment still gives him chills. Kyrie Irving called Smart crazy. It’s also probably the best example of how Smart can change the entire tenor of a game — or a series — by simply bringing his relentless brand of hustle and grit.

Which is why Horford can only laugh and shake his head at the recollection of Smart pouncing directly on the parquet.

“He’s just scrappy, you know what I’m saying?” said Horford. “He just grinds, he just always finds a way.”

And, now, the Celtics are hoping he can deliver a similar spark, when the Celtics and Bucks meet in Game 4 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series on Monday night at TD Garden.

Smart was upgraded to questionable for Game 4 and said Sunday that he is “hopeful” to play on Monday night. He’s simply waiting to see how his torn oblique responds to recent activity, including full-contact 3-on-3 work during Saturday’s offday and a contact-less full-team workout on Sunday. 

If Smart is able to return, he’ll be doing so almost exactly four weeks after the injury. The Celtics originally gave a 4-6 week recovery timeline but coach Brad Stevens repeatedly stressed that four weeks would be “aggressive,” doing such as recently as earlier this week in Milwaukee.

And, yet, it almost seems appropriate that Smart is already plotting his comeback. 

With almost any other player, it would seem unfair to think that they could miss a month of basketball then dive back into the intensity of playoff hoops and have any sort of positive impact. But this is Smart, a scrappy cyborg whose accelerated healing powers are often compared to Marvel Comics' Wolverine.

It’s even more absurd with Smart given the nature of his recovery from the torn oblique. Sixteen days ago, before the Celtics played Game 3 of a first-round series in Indiana, Smart sat on a bench inside BankersLife Fieldhouse and reveled in simply being able to get up a handful of short-range flat-footed shots. Smart, who could barely walk without pain the week before, said then that he hoped to be able to jog in a couple of weeks.

Now, a couple weeks have passed, and he might sprint full headlong into playoff basketball.

It defies logic. Even Horford struggles to explain how Smart routinely defies his injury timelines. The Celtics have preached caution with Smart, even as every step of his progress has been documented by iPhone-clutching reporters who couldn’t help but wonder if Smart might just get back on the court this series.

How exactly does Smart magically heal himself?

"I know that he’s been putting in the time. I can tell you that,” said Horford. "I think that he has that mindset and he wants to be back. He wants to be back helping us. I know it’s been hard for him to sit there and watch.”

Smart confirmed as much, saying it’s been “brutal” to be sidelined, particularly after losses like Games 2 and 3 where Boston simply came unglued for short stretches. He wonders if he could have helped prevented those lapses.

Smart has done his best to dispense advice to teammates from the sideline but he’s been left feeling helpless. But that might all change as early as Monday.

"It’s exciting. He’s a big part of our team,” said Kyrie Irving, who paired with Smart as Boston’s most common backcourt paring this season. "He alleviates a lot of different pressures out there throughout the game and makes my job a lot easier. So whenever you have the possibility of him returning, it’s always a positive.”

Smart’s impact on last year’s series against the Bucks isn’t hard to see. Over the final three games of that series, Smart played 83 minutes and the Celtics had a defensive rating of 98.8 in that span. In the 258 total minutes that Boston played without him, that number ballooned to 109.1.

The team followed a similar script during the 2018-19 regular season. While the Celtics struggled to score in minutes that Smart played against the Bucks this year, Boston owned a defensive rating of 103.7 in the 88 minutes that Smart was on the court against Milwaukee. That number inflating to 116.7 in the 56 minutes he was on the bench.

Over the course of three regular-season games this year, Smart defended Bucks sharpshooter Khris Middleton for 49 possessions, holding him to 14 points on 6-of-15 shooting overall. Smart is maybe the only guard in the league who craves to get a switch on Giannis Antetokounmpo and can consistently hold his own (maybe better than most bigs).

Smart is going to have rust. The injury is going to get tested much harder in game action than anything that he saw in 3-on-3 work. But there’s reason to be encouraged that Smart is ready for action.

Smart said he “accidentally” drew a charge during those 3-on-3 games on Saturday. Make no mistake about it, it was not accidental. Smart meant to take the charge, he had simply been advised to avoid such instances by the team’s medical staff. According to those watching the game, Smart hit the ground hard as a teammate soared towards the basket. But, in typical Smart fashion, he popped right back up, any pain numbed by knowing it was the sort of play that would have changed the momentum of a game.

The contact also gave Smart even more confidence that, so long as his body responds well, he can dive back in without fear of reinjury.

"It was ironic because that’s what I needed to do,” Smart said of taking the hard hit. He later confidently added, "If I'm able to play I doubt there would be moves I can't make.”

And clearly there’s no injury timeline that Smart can’t beat. The only question is whether he can once again save the Celtics in a playoff series against the Bucks.

How the Celtics can even the series with the Bucks>>>

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Al Horford on playing his former Celtics teammates: 'It's going to be weird for me'

Al Horford on playing his former Celtics teammates: 'It's going to be weird for me'

Al Horford spent the last three seasons of his career with the Boston Celtics, and as he prepares to face off against them as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, he admitted it will be weird to go up against his former team. 

After a season where the typically overachieving Celtics fell disastrously short of expectations, Horford opted out of his contract with Boston to enter the free-agent market. A reported 'mystery team' was offering him far more money than the Celtics were comfortable with given the near-guarantee of Kyrie Irving's departure at the time.

That team turned out to be the Philadelphia 76ers, the Celtics' biggest rival in the Eastern Conference and a team Horford gave fits due to his ability to shut down Joel Embiid on both ends of the floor. The Celtics tried to pull off a miraculous three-team sign-and-trade to secure both Horford and Kemba Walker, but the veteran big man put an end to that by agreeing to a four-year, $97 million contract with Philly the night of June 30. 

The Celtics and Sixers will open their seasons in Philadelphia, so Horford's return to Boston and his reunion with the TD Garden faithful will have to wait. But it'll still feel incredibly weird to see Horford in a Sixers uniform, setting up Embiid for baskets instead of turning him away from them. 

The Celtics, meanwhile, will have to figure out a way to counteract Philly's size in the frontcourt if they have any chance of beating such a talented Sixers team this upcoming Wednesday. 

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Celtics assistant Jay Larranaga lauds Marcus Smart's defensive fundamentals

Celtics assistant Jay Larranaga lauds Marcus Smart's defensive fundamentals

Marcus Smart cemented his status as one of the NBA's best defenders after a First Team All-Defense selection last season, but he's been exceptional on that end of the floor in each of his first five seasons with the Celtics. 

We notice his sharp instincts, tenacity on and off the ball and the grittiness he shows when he guards players much taller than he is. But what probably goes most unnoticed are his fundamentals, and Celtics assistant coach Jay Larranaga detailed how fundamentally sound Smart is on the defensive end of the floor in Adam Himmelsbach's latest story on the team's heartbeat. 

Marcus is a live example of the most fundamental defense you can teach. Every year you bring in new players and you’re trying to teach them NBA defense, you have an example of a defender that has been the most fundamentally sound defender I’ve ever been around. So you can say, ‘This is how guard a corner split: Watch Marcus. This is how you get into the ball and direct it with active hands: Watch Marcus.’ You always have a guy right there to tell other players, like, just watch what he’s doing and try to emulate it.

Since Smart entered the league, Brad Stevens has had a really hard time taking him out of games. He's been a starter or a key reserve in every season of his career and has been a staple in Boston's closing lineups as well.

Here's a look at how the Celtics have ranked in defensive rating since Smart's rookie year in 2014-15:

2014-15: 12th
2015-16: 4th
2016-17: 14th
2017-18: 2nd
2018-19: 6th

Without Al Horford, who was a part of the last three Celtics defenses and Aron Baynes, who was a part of the last two, Boston will have to overcome a glaring hole in the frontcourt on defense. While Smart has expressed his confidence in playing center in the past, Stevens will have to rely on ball pressure to ensure his team stays strong on defense.

And there's a good chance Smart is leading the charge in that department. 

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