Celtics' Marcus Smart gets praise from Gary Payton, a shirtless early exit and prepares for Giannis

Celtics' Marcus Smart gets praise from Gary Payton, a shirtless early exit and prepares for Giannis

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.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Bucks, which begins Thursday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.

Celtics injuries: Kemba Walker (knee) out Sunday vs. Lakers

Celtics injuries: Kemba Walker (knee) out Sunday vs. Lakers

The Boston Celtics will have to take on the Los Angeles Lakers without Kemba Walker on Sunday afternoon.

The C's guard will miss his second straight game due to a sore left knee, the team announced Saturday. Head coach Brad Stevens revealed earlier this week Walker's knee swelled up and had to be drained. Walker also had his knee injected with Synvisc, a pain relief treatment used for knee soreness.

Robert Williams remains ruled out with a left hip bone edema, though there is hope the big man will return to the court after the Celtics wrap up their road trip.

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Celtics-Lakers tips off Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET. When these two teams last faced off on January 20, the C's cruised to a 139-107 victory.

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Celtics' Brad Stevens the rare college-to-the-pros coaching success story

Celtics' Brad Stevens the rare college-to-the-pros coaching success story

LOS ANGELES — No matter what Brad Stevens does from here on out, he'll be remembered as one of the winningest coaches in Boston Celtics history. 

At 309 victories (and counting) after Friday’s 127-117 win over Minnesota, only three men — Red Auerbach (795), Tommy Heinsohn (427) and Doc Rivers (416) — have won more games pacing the Celtics sideline than Stevens. 

Making the milestone even more impressive is that Stevens came directly from the college ranks, where success has been a rarity. 

The most recent college-to-the-pros coach to struggle with the adjustment is Cleveland’s John Beilein. The former Michigan coach stepped down as the Cavs' head coach to assume a yet-to-be-determined job within the franchise. 

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Figuring out the secret sauce to Stevens’ success isn't easy.

He’ll be the first to tell you that a number of factors have come into play that allowed him to find success where so many of his college-to-the-pros brethren struggled. 

One of the reasons college coaches get opportunities to lead NBA teams is because of the track record of success they build up at the college level. Stevens led the Butler Bulldogs to a national runner-up finish in back-to-back seasons (2010 and 2011), a remarkable accomplishment for a mid-major program. 

For Stevens, preparing for the worst when it comes to wins and losses, was challenging at first. The lack of success Cleveland (15-40) has experienced this season was a major factor in Beilein’s decision to no longer coach the Cavs. 

“I find losing very challenging and this year has taken a much bigger toll on me than I expected,” Beilein said in a statement. “I grew concerned for the consequences this toll could potentially take on my own health and my family's well-being down the road. I was not certain I could be at my best for the remainder of the season and in the future. That would not be fair to the players, coaches and support staff."

Indeed, Stevens recalls how difficult dealing with all the losing in that first year was for him. 

As a rookie head coach with the Celtics, Stevens’ squad finished 25-57. To put that in perspective, Stevens won more games at Butler in five of his six seasons than he did in Boston as a rookie, and did so in less than half of an 82-game NBA season. 

“That first year was hard,” Stevens told NBC Sports Boston. “I remember being miserable because I never lost like that. But that’s part of it. You learn a lot about yourself, so when you get to that second year you feel a lot different.”

Those early struggles did not catch Stevens off-guard.

“Our first year was expected to be really hard,” Stevens said. “It was expected to be hard for a couple years.”

But a series of trades during the 2014-2015 season gave Boston just the jolt of confidence and talent needed to make a late-season charge. That ended with them getting the eighth and final playoff seed, where they swept in the first round by the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers. 

Sure, getting swept was disappointing. But that balanced out with the fact that Boston had found a brand of basketball that would serve as the foundation for the team’s future success. 

“We found a team that competed well together,” Stevens said. “We were able in year two to find our way, at least establishing a little bit with that group, how we wanted to play.”

Stevens is quick to credit the Celtics’ front office, ownership and his assistant coaches for providing the kind of support on and off the court, that a college coach making a jump of this magnitude, absolutely has to have. But maybe more than anything, a college coach making the jump to the NBA has to trust that the process of establishing a comfort level and a culture takes more than just one season. 

For Stevens, that’s the great disappointment in how things have played out with Beilein. While there’s a certain element of uncertainty that comes with making the jump to the pros, Beilein did his research in advance. Stevens was among the coaches he spoke with prior to taking the Cavs job. 

Beilein also spoke with Oklahoma City’s Billy Donovan, who also made the jump from a successful career in college to the NBA. 

"I talked to Billy the year before at length," Beilein told reporters earlier this season. "For like an hour on the phone. He encouraged me that he really liked (the NBA). He liked the pace of it. He really liked the coaching. He also said, ‘It’s a long season. You gotta be able to stay in there and hang through the tough times and just keep coaching.’ He encouraged me to do it." 

So did Stevens, who felt Beilein’s strength in working with young players, coupled with his innovative style of play, would make him an ideal head coach for a young Cavaliers squad. 

There’s a fairly high amount of trial and error that first year as well. 

“When I first got the job, I’m watching film of the Celtics from the year before and nobody is going to be back. This doesn’t make sense,,”Stevens recalled. 

Shortly before Stevens accepted the job, the Celtics traded away cornerstone players Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, leaving Rajon Rondo as the only starter with the team at that time, from the 2008 NBA title squad. 

But with each passing season, Stevens became more comfortable with the NBA. 

“You are in front of the media, in front of the cameras and you have to answer and do that every single day while preparing your team to play their best,” Stevens said. “It’s just a really challenging gig.”

And now in his seventh season, there’s little doubt that Stevens is comfortable with the league, its players and his role in moving Boston closer towards Banner 18.

I asked Stevens if there were one or two tips he had for a college coach who was contemplating a move to the NBA as a head coach. 

“What I always tell the college guys that are interested is, the summers are great,” Stevens said. “The middle of the season is going to throw a bunch of storms at you. That’s part of it. But that’s ... it’s a lot of fun if you keep the right perspective.”

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Lakers, which begins Sunday at 2:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 3:30 p.m. You can also stream on the MyTeams App