This Wednesday is Marcus Smart Day here at NBC Sports Boston. Be sure to check out our exclusive content around Smart throughout the day, both online and on the broadcast of Spurs-Celtics.
Jaylen Brown, no stranger to putting people on a poster, cringed when he saw what was about to happen.
The Celtics had lost Miami’s Bam Adebayo while defending a pick-and-roll, and now the bouncy Heat big man was rolling free to the rim and Marcus Smart made a rather bold decision to race over and contest.
Brown, waiting near the scorer’s table at American Airlines Arena, saw it all unfolding and, well, we’ll let him tell the story:
“One of their most athletic players, Bam Adebayo, goes up to try to dunk one on top of Smart, and Smart meets him up there and gets likes the cleanest block I’ve ever seen,” said Brown. "It was just like a great example of elite athleticism. I wasn’t expecting Marcus to come out victorious in that situation and he did.
“Most people wouldn’t jump. Like the dude’s name is Bam. Who’s going to jump with a dude named Bam, right? Marcus went up top with him, and came out on top.”
Brown had been asked to recall a play that embodied the Smart experience. Like many of his teammates, Brown initially struggled to hone in on just one. The late-game charges taken versus James Harden? The Kawhi Leonard strip to give the Celtics a final gasp in L.A.? The improbable overtime putback in Toronto? Smart and “winning plays” have truly become synonymous in these parts.
But teammates often point to Smart’s fearlessness in defending the rim as what they marvel at most. It’s not a stretch to suggest that Smart is Boston’s best rim protector, despite the fact that he’s 6-foot-3, because he so often embraces the challenge of clogging a big man’s path to the basket.
Like earlier this season when a backcourt turnover left Wizards 6-foot-11 big man Mo Wagner rumbling towards the rim. Even while on his heels initially, Smart managed to shuffle into the charge circle, then leaped with Wagner as he reared back for a left-hand hammer, and Smart somehow denied the effort.
"That’s what really made me realize how special he was, man. He challenges guys who are six, seven inches taller than him, which is crazy sometimes to me,” said Kemba Walker. "His defense is insane.”
Insane enough that Smart truly deserves consideration for Defensive Player of the Year?
"Of course. No question. He’s been special,” said Walker. 'He’s been special this year. I don’t know if there’s many other guys better than him this year.”
Smart faces long odds for the award, if only because voting tends to skew towards big men. It’s been a quarter century since Gary Payton was the last guard to win the honor. But after elevating to the NBA’s All-Defense first team last year, and being the top vote-getter for DPOY among guards, the rest of the league is at least taking note of Smart’s defensive impact.
Smart wants voters to recognize the versatility he affords his team.
“Bigs, they do a lot. I’m not taking anything away from the bigs but when you’ve got a guard who is guarding 1 through 5, and the way I play bigger than a guard. I think [voters] just see the blocks or things like that, they don’t see all the other little things,” said Smart. "You don’t see a big running and diving on the floor like you see me as a guard. You don’t see a big getting out there guarding a 1 like I’m guarding a 5. You don’t see bigs doing all the little things that I’m doing.
"It is unfair. It’s more of a popularity contest. I’m not people’s favorite player, which is fine with me. It just comes down to, when you see who’s voting and you see who they are voting for and why, they’re not even looking at the numbers and the stats. They’re looking at, ‘Oh, this is my favorite player and he plays for this team.’ That’s all they look at it. It is unfair but it is what it is.”
After his early season efforts, particularly against Leonard and the Clippers, Smart had current and former players stumping for him for Defensive Player of the Year, including former teammate Isaiah Thomas and former Celtics big man Kendrick Perkins.
"Those guys, they know basketball,” said Smart. "The people who really know basketball really know and see the impact and effect that me as a guard has compared to bigs. The things I’m able to do that bigs just aren’t able to do. Like I said, it’s hard. You don’t really see often a big switching onto a 1 and being able to lock them down like I do on 5s.
"It’s good to see those guys who really know basketball and really speak on it.”
Smart’s versatility is a big reason Boston owns the third best defense in the NBA while allowing 103.8 points per 100 possessions. The Celtics’ defensive rating dips to 102.3 when Smart is on the court.
More impressive are Smart’s individual defensive numbers. According to the NBA’s player tracking data, Smart is holding opponents to 39.5 percent shooting, or 5 percent below their typical average. That’s a top 35 mark in the NBA (and top 10 among players under 6-foot-4), but made all the more impressive given the caliber of offensive player that Smart is often tasked with defending. Factor in all the post ups he gleefully accepts against bigs and his defensive efforts become even more notable.
Rookie Grant Williams yearns to play defense like Smart. He’s gone so far as to dub himself Smart’s Mini Me — even though Williams is three inches taller — in part because Williams wants to play with the same intensity and versatility as Smart.
"I just respect how he plays defense,” said Williams. "In my opinion, he’s Defensive Player of the Year. He doesn't get the credit he deserves. Defensively, that’s what I want to absorb from him. I want to be a guy that can guard as many positions as he can. That’s the biggest thing.”
There was obvious concern when the Celtics lost both Al Horford and Aron Baynes over the summer. Many suggested Boston’s defense would plummet. But Smart wouldn’t allow it, and the progress made by young wings like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have helped Boston actually climb higher in defensive rating rankings.
Walker said it’s Smart who sets the tone, and he’s quickly learned why there’s so much chatter about “winning plays."
“He’s the pride and joy, man. We go as he goes. He brings the energy. He brings the passion, he brings the toughness,” said Walker. "Just that winning attitude. He means a ton.
“It’s exciting. It’s energizing. He just gets everybody going. Gets us going, gets the crowd going. Like I said, we just kinda feed off him. He just does so many great things. And propels our defense each and every night.”
Brown believes Smart truly deserves to be Defensive Player of Year. He said there simply aren’t a lot of players like Smart in the NBA.
"We got a lot of [talented] guys, but the stuff that Marcus kinda brings to the table, not a lot of people have,” said Brown. "That heart, that grit, that fire, that passion. We got a lot of cool guys that are kinda laid back; Marcus is the opposite. Marcus is a hit-first type of guy. My kind of guy.
"Just like I said, the energy, the grit, the fire, the passion, the desire, that fight. You necessarily can’t measure it. You can measure somebody’s height, you can measure somebody’s wingspan, but you can’t measure somebody’s heart. Marcus has got more than enough for one person.
"That's the type of stuff that causes winning plays.”
Don't miss Marcus Smart Day and NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Spurs, which tips off Wednesday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike and Scal have the call at 7 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.