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.
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