Celtics Q&A: Marcus Smart on dodgeball domination and playoff confidence

Celtics Q&A: Marcus Smart on dodgeball domination and playoff confidence

BOSTON — Boston Celtics rookie Robert Williams knew everyone in the gymnasium was in trouble the moment Marcus Smart emerged from the locker room.

Smart, Williams, and R.J. Hunter huddled Saturday with a group of area kids as part of the team's “Fit To Win” initiative. The event’s focal point: a game of dodgeball that Smart had not-so secretly been lusting over as if it were a playoff game.

“S---, he went to change his shoes and he came out in his practice jersey so we knew he was going to be serious as hell,” said Williams, shaking his head at Smart’s intensity over a schoolyard game. “It’s the same energy with him every time, it don’t matter what he’s doing.”

This was quite literally Billy Madison stepping onto the playground for first-grade recess, snaring a dodgeball whizzed at his head, and announcing that everyone was in big, BIG trouble.

For the next 15 minutes, Smart played dodgeball like it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals, much of his intensity focused on eliminating his Celtics teammates. But no 8-year-olds were spared, either. Celtics players were instructed that they could only throw at the children with their off hand, but that didn’t stop Smart from piling up eliminations as his team won the event.

This is Smart in a nutshell. Relentlessly competitive regardless of the situation. The Celtics were coming off a two-game road trip and an emotional win in Indiana the night before. How many NBA starters would want to spend a rare off day at a community event? You don’t get many pristine weather days in early April in Boston, but Smart was downright excited to be indoors with the kids.

As Celtics fans hold their breath over the oblique bruise that left him crumpled in a pained heap on the Garden floor on Sunday night and seemingly threatens his availability for the start of the playoffs next weekend, take solace knowing that Smart’s competitive drive is going to have him fighting to get back on the floor.

On Sunday morning, before the injury setback, Smart sat down with NBC Sports Boston to recount his dodgeball domination and ponder Boston’s impending playoff foray. A sampling of the Q&A at the team’s Auerbach Center.

How much fun did you have out there playing dodgeball on Saturday?

Smart: It was amazing, man. I’m a big kid. I think anybody would love to play dodgeball, man. It’s a fun way to stay active, it’s a fun way to relieve stress — have a little fun with it. I don’t care how old you are, you’re never get too old for dodgeball.

Right after the event, you were on social media breaking down the game film.

Smart: We went right to it. All in all it was a fun day for me, R.J., and Rob. We had a lot of fun with the kids. For the kids to go insane the way that they did, it means a lot to us. It was special.

OK, but did you legitimately total how many 8-year-olds you eliminated?

Smart: No, I didn’t total it but I know it was more than 5. I know it was more than 5, for sure. R.J., I think had three. Rob, I think two. They made us play with our left hands so it was weird. Me, Rob, and R.J., the adults had to play with our left hands, our off-hands. So it was interesting.

Did your team win?

Smart: Oh yeah, my team won. My team won. We had the least amount of hits [taken]. I’m the defending champ. You know I take this seriously.

Does this little dodgeball game sorta show your competitive nature?

Smart: Yeah, whatever I do, I want to be the best at it. So I’m trying. I’m going to try everything and I’m never going to quit. So, if I lose once, you gotta play me again. If I lose twice, you gotta play me again until I win one. That’s just how it is. That’s how I was raised. To be able to go out there and do something unique, not everybody gets that opportunity, to have that competitive nature, it’s something special.

Did you get eliminated at all in the dodgeball game?

Smart: I actually did. One kid got me out. He snuck up on me. I was trying to get Rob and R.J. because they were double-teaming me, and the next thing I knew, some kid came in behind me and he catches me. That was the first time I’ve ever got out in dodgeball, so I was a little bit upset about that. [Editor’s note: We’re fairly certain Smart meant this was the first time in his life he had been eliminated in dodgeball.]

Did you give that kid a little respect for eliminating you?

Smart: Oh, for sure. It was a good one.

Let’s talk about the team’s recent surge. Two weeks ago you guys held a team meeting after the Spurs loss, but you were alarmingly calm after it and felt like the team was heading in the right direction. Why did you feel that way?

Smart: Because of the guys that I go to bat with every night, man. I know what everybody’s potential is, I know what everybody really wants. The common denominator is [the team’s championship] goal. So I wasn’t really worried because I’ve seen what this team can do. Obviously, we haven’t done that and lived up to the expectations but, when we do, when we get it clicking, all it takes is one for us. So we’re just looking for that one time to get us going.

You’ve had some quality wins lately. How close do you think you are to clicking?

Smart: We’re getting there. We’re not there yet but we’re pretty close. We had that game against Indiana [on Friday] where we thought we played a full game for the first time this season. Really, it was a full game for everybody and full effort. It was fun to play, everybody had fun, everybody was focused. Everybody was in a different mindset and getting ready for the playoffs. You can kinda see it, you can feel it in the locker room. Everybody is locked in.

Safe to say you’re pretty confident about this team’s potential in the playoffs?

Smart: Very confident. And I’m very proud of these guys. We’ve been through a lot of adversity and we’ve stuck with it and we’ve kept battling. We’re finally getting a couple of games under our belt that we like and we’re feeling good about ourselves. Going into the playoffs, everybody knows, getting that rhythm going — once you get a rhythm, you’re hard to stop. 

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These days, it's Celtics fans blowing kisses at Jaylen Brown

These days, it's Celtics fans blowing kisses at Jaylen Brown

BOSTON — The story of Jaylen Brown’s NBA career is always seemingly intertwined a bit with Jimmy Butler.

You know the backstory by now: Celtics fans booed when Boston used the No. 3 pick in the 2016 draft on Brown instead of dealing it for a more established veteran such as Butler. The two players shared a trainer a few years back and they held summer workouts together in Mexico. Brown yearned to extract all he could while working with the ultra-competitive Butler.

So, it seemed particularly noteworthy watching Brown cap his 31-point outburst Wednesday night at the expense of Butler. After Brown’s 15-point third-quarter explosion helped Boston separate a bit, it was Brown twice shaking Butler and hitting a pair of long jumpers over his old pal — including one lucky 27-foot banked 3-pointer — as the Celtics finished off a 112-93 triumph over Butler’s Heat at TD Garden.

Butler had a big night of his own, singlehandedly trying to keep Miami afloat while playing the second night of a back-to-back after a spirited overtime win in Toronto on Tuesday. He was sensational while putting up a game-high 37 points on 12-of-18 shooting in 37 minutes.

But the student more than held his own with the teacher. Brown shrugged off a quiet first half to score 22 second-half points. His loud third-quarter culminated with back-to-back 3-pointers in front of the Miami bench and Brown playfully suggested afterward that he blew a kiss to former teammate Kelly Olynyk after the second triple.

All those Celtics fans that grumbled when Brown was drafted are blowing kisses his way now. All those that groaned when he inked a four-year, $115 million extension in October are professing their love for the deal.

Brown nearly matched his career highs for both the regular season (32 points) and postseason scoring (34) on Wednesday night. It feels like he’ll eclipse both soon. Brown is averaging 19.9 points per game while shooting 49.4 percent from the field, 38.2 percent beyond the 3-point arc, and a career-best 71.8 percent at the free-throw line. Add in career-highs at 6.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.2 steals per game.

It all looks very similar to what Butler is doing in Miami, where he is averaging 20.1 points, 6 rebounds, 6.5 assists, and 2.4 steals per game.

Brown has undoubtedly heard his detractors and still finds motivation in them. While being playfully peppered about his kiss blowing, he was asked about similar incidents in the past.

"I guess when people like to say I’m a non-shooter and then I make it, that’s my gift to them,” said Brown.

When the Heat blitzed Kemba Walker after his early scoring exploits, it often left Boston shooters open when the Celtics swung the ball across the court. Brown feasted on open looks but sometimes it didn’t matter if he was blanketed. On the first of his two consecutive late-third-quarter 3s, Brown was being smothered in the corner by Justise Winslow (the 2015 draft desire that Boston could not pry away from the Frank Kaminsky-craving Hornets). Even after the Heat had cut their deficit to single digits in that third quarter, Brown calmly squared up to the basket, moved the ball around to create a tiny bit of space, then pulled up over Winslow’s outstretched arm for a triple.

He gazed briefly at the Miami bench but saved his air-peck for the next trip down when he made another corner 3 (this time an open look as Olynyk scrambled out). It might as well have been a curtain call on a night where Brown took center stage in the second half.

"When [Brown] has it going, he definitely gives us a lot more options,” said Walker. "He’s been playing well all year. I’m excited for him. He’s put in a lot of work each and every day, and it’s showing on the court.”

It’s not just the big scoring night but how Brown did it. He hit a lot of jump shots but also had instances where he bullied his way to the basket against quality defenders such as Bam Adebayo and muscled home tough finishes around the basket. Brown also got to the line a team-high eight times, accounting for a quarter of Boston’s total free-throw attempts.

At a time when Boston’s offense has slumped while Gordon Hayward rehabs a broken hand, Brown has tried to pick up some slack. In the 12 games without Hayward, Brown is averaging 20.4 points while shooting 48.4 percent from the floor and 41.4 percent beyond the 3-point arc. He’s adding 7.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.4 steals per game.

With the win, the Celtics took down another of their primary East rivals and shuffled into a second-place tie with Toronto. Milwaukee is three games ahead but Boston is one of their three defeats this season. With 20 games and nearly a quarter of the season in the rearview, the Celtics own a .750 winning percentage. That’s a 61.5-win pace though the level of competition ahead should reel that win total in a bit.

For now, Boston is 8-0 at home and has typically won the games it should this season. They didn’t look particularly crisp early but a bench effort led by Semi Ojeleye and Robert Williams helped crank the defensive intensity and Brown elevated his play as the Celtics surged ahead.

It’s fair to wonder how it’ll all look when Hayward is healthy enough to come back and it appears he’s trending towards a December return while already resuming a bit of contact activity this week. Can a Walker/Tatum/Brown/Hayward quartet find enough shots for one another?

If everyone buys into looking for the best shot and exploiting the biggest mismatches, there should be. Brown is feasting when teams put their energy into slowing Walker and Jayson Tatum. Hayward’s return will really force teams to pick their poison.

Brown is making teams account for him. The only thing clogging his path to All-Star consideration is Boston’s depth. Still, the strides Brown made this summer have forced the rest of the league to take notice of how far he’s advanced.

He’s come a long way since fans booed the pick. He’s come a long way since working out with Butler. The best part for Boston fans is that there’s still a lot of room for growth. And a lot more kisses to be blown in his direction.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nuggets, which tips off Friday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call at 8 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Celtics use Smart's absence to lock in defensively, lock down the Miami Heat

Celtics use Smart's absence to lock in defensively, lock down the Miami Heat

BOSTON -- Marcus Smart was nowhere to be found on the floor Wednesday night for the Celtics, but make no mistake about it... 

...Smart’s presence, even when he’s not in the building, is still felt by his teammates and opponents, to a lesser extent. 

No Smart (illness) meant the rest of the Celtics had to collectively step up their game defensively. 

Did. They. Ever. 

The Celtics delivered one of their better defensive performances this season as they pulled away for a 112-93 win over the Miami Heat. 

It’s not that huge a surprise until you realize that the Celtics defense delivered on a night without Smart, a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive first team a year ago which validates his reputation as one of the league’s top defenders. 

The Celtics (15-5) began their surge defensively in the second quarter. Facing an eight-point deficit (28-20) after the first quarter, they took control over the next three quarters as they outscored the Heat, 92-65.

They were getting deflections, hustling down loose balls, diving on the floor…basically making a bunch of Marcus Smart-like plays.

Following the win, Celtics players were quick to acknowledge not having Smart forced them all to pay closer attention to their individual and team assignments defensively, well aware anything less would surely spoil their perfect home record (8-0) this season. 

“No question, no question you can’t replace Smart,” said Semi Ojeleye. “The intensity that he brings on every possession and the energy and just the plays he makes. He sees what is coming before everybody else does. So we knew we had to bring extra talk in his absence.”

Among the most vocal players was Ojeleye, who played every minute of the second and third quarters in a stretch where the Celtics outscored the Heat, 62-41. 

Placing an even higher emphasis on doing a better job at the “little things” defensively, takes on greater importance on nights such as Wednesday when the team’s defensive leader - Smart - is unable to play. 

“Smart is one of the best defensive players we have in this league,” said Kemba Walker. “He’s our defensive anchor. And when you don’t have him, you have to try your best to make up as much as possible. He is a huge part of what we do, so yeah, you have to be that much more locked in and that much more on point to try and make up for the things that he does for us.”

That involves making smarter plays defensively; the kind that their defensive anchor  Smart makes night-in and night-out. 

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nuggets, which tips off Friday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call at 8 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.