The Boston Celtics have been an NBA wrecking ball since January 23. Two things happened that day: Jayson Tatum kicked off his annual second-half ascension by dropping 51 points against the Washington Wizards, and Marcus Smart returned from a bout with COVID.
The Celtics are a league-best 26-6 since Jan. 23. They own the NBA’s best offensive rating (119.8), defensive rating (104.4), and net rating (plus-15.5) over that span. Entering the final week of the season, there’s still a chance to snag the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Much of Boston’s second-half success can be traced to Smart, who hasn’t just emerged as the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year -- with a chance to become the first guard since Gary Payton in 1996 to win the award -- but also has quarterbacked Boston’s improved offense while firmly declaring that he is indeed the point guard of the future for this team.
There is an obvious joy about Smart this season, something that was missing at times a year ago. Recently, he opened up to NBC Sports Boston about finding joy again and how the team navigated the early bumps in the road to find success. (Edited for length and context):
At the end of last season, you were telling us how it was kind of a tough year for you, personally. You signed a four-year, $77 million extension this offseason and now you guys have launched here in the second half of the season. How rewarding has this season been for you, personally?
Marcus Smart: Very rewarding. A lot of things that happened in the year, and even this year, that has put a lot of things in my life in perspective. And really just allowed me to focus on things positive -- positive energy. Things that really matter. And really not focus on the things that don't, and that's being able to play the game of basketball.
Celtics Talk: 1-on-1 with Marcus Smart on spearheading a turnaround, and pushing the Jays | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube
Even in the beginning of year when things weren't going as great for us, the point in that for me was I'm blessed to come out here and do this every single day. And a lot of people don't get that opportunity. So let's make the best out of it whenever we can and things will turn around. You just got to stay on the right path and keep that positive energy.
Earlier in the year, you called the team meeting and publicly put pressure on the Jays to grow and develop their game. How nice is it now to watch the way this has all blossomed? Is this what you sort of knew was possible back then?
Smart: Yeah, but even back with the whole Jays comment, you know, it really did get taken out of context. And I haven't really spoke on it, for the simple fact because it wasn't something, like I said, that it was worth giving my energy to.
Because, end of the day, what I said and if you really listen closely, and you were in that meeting, I said, for other teams, this is their scouting report. Other teams are saying this about our team, when it comes to our two best players. And we, as a team, have to do a better job at helping them help us as a team to get better.
And they're only going to get better. But they have to get better at this, something that, for us to be good, it’s something that they have to get better. And, ultimately, by them doing that, the whole team is getting better at that and it's shown, with the beginning of this year and the second half of the season for us.
Those two guys have stepped up their play and them developing and growing exponentially in the right way that this team needs. It's only been making the team even better.
It feels like two distinct Celtics seasons in one. Pretty much there's everything before January 23 and the sort of the roller coaster before you guys got healthy. And then there's when you came back from COVID on January 23. You guys are 26-6 and now have the best offensive rating in the league since that point, the best defensive rating. What stands out to you about the way the team is playing? What was it that changed? Was it just health? Or when you came back, were you playing different?
Smart: It's probably a little bit of everything. We had guys out, we were trying different lineups, trying to get that cohesiveness going with each other, guys in new roles, guys having to trust each other in those new roles and trying to figure out the best way for the team to be great with this guy in this role. It was a lot going that went into that.
I think coming into the second half of the season, it was more of, OK, the trade deadline is gone, so now we know, going forward, this is who we're going to be with. Now we can really lock in and get things turned up and really sharpen those tools that we have in this toolbox.
And that’s what it was. We got to settle down, we got to actually understand that, OK, this is where we're going. And this is how it's going to be. The changes are going to be very minimal. So you don't have to be expecting any big changes and just play ball. And that's what it was.
There were questions at the start of the year about whether you could be the point guard of this group, even though the numbers from past seasons indicated that the team was good whenever you were in the point guard role. Did you have to change anything about the way you played? Are we are you just being yourself out there?
Smart: Just being myself. Really just playing my best, a game of basketball that I know how to play and been playing. Coming out of high school, I was point guard, went to college as a point guard, got drafted as a point guard. So, my first couple years, it was just really tough because some nights I was supposed to be the point guard, some nights they wanted me to play off the ball, other nights they wanted me to do this. So I was more of a Swiss Army knife than just a straight bow and arrow.
I couldn't really perfect one thing; I had to be good at a lot of things. Whereas guys they focus on one thing: If you're a scorer, you focus on scoring; if you’re this, you focus on this. I had to focus on a lot of things that I couldn't just perfect one thing. So being in that point guard position where I'm comfortable, it allows me to portray all those aspects of my game that I have to have, as a Swiss Army knife, and the versatility that I bring to be able to do those things on the team.
There’s not a lot of good stats for perimeter defenders that are easy to make your case for Defensive Player of the Year. All those backline guys have blocks and all that. How much fun have you had trying to pump up your own candidacy -- your tweets about everything that happened in 1996 and all the Gary Payton stuff. How hard has it been trying to sway the way voters look at Defensive Player of the Year?
Smart: It's always tough, especially as a guard, for multiple reasons. And one of those reasons, like you said, there's nothing statistically to help a guard speak his case in this category. The bigs have blocks, they have the rebounds, things like this. So we are already at a disadvantage.
But then to be able to go out there, as guards, and still compete the way we do every night against the best guards and best players because, let’s be honest, most of the guys that are the best players in this league, the majority of them are perimeter players. Which means the guards are the ones that are taking on more heat off the rip from those guys.
To not even have a stat for that just says a lot about how biased this award is towards the big man. And understandably. We cannot downgrade or dismantle the bigs. They are very vital to any defense. But, at the same time, that front line, if you don't have a front line, and make it hard for those guys to get to our bigs, it'll be a long night for those bigs.
Then, think about it, as a guard you have to be able to switch --1, 2, 3, 4, and, in my position, 5. I’m switching 1 through 5 and have to hold my own knowing that I'm going to be put in every action, I'm going to be put in all these actions and I have to be able to still be effective when they try to get me out of these actions and things like that.
So it's definitely tough for us guards to really state our case in this battle for Defensive Player of the Year because there's nothing there to help us, there's no stats for us at all. So it's tough but you know it's part of it. It’s part of the deal. We keep going and showing what we can do.
What went through your mind when Grant Williams and coach Ime Udoka did their fake fight on April Fool’s Day? And how did you come up with the analogy of two walruses fighting?
Smart: Oh, man. It was funny because it came out of nowhere. It was a surprise. Everyone was just kind of like, 'Are they serious? Like, what's going on?' But it seemed a little off at the same time because, once again, it's like, 'Are they serious?’ It's game day. What's going on, right?'
And because of the way Grant responded right away, I had a feeling something was up, but they did a good job. They got me. It’s cool to be able to do that thing. There's a lot going on, to be able to laugh, decompress, take away a lot of stress and just be happy, it’s good. Laughter is good for the soul. It's good for you. It's good for the mind. So that was good.
The walrus thing? I don’t know. Have you have ever seen two walruses fight?
No, but it was the perfect analogy. I'm a writer and I could not have come up with that.
Smart: It was exactly what I imagined those two doing. It's not throwing hands, it's more just slapping bodies.
Tell me about the chemistry on this group. Because when things are going poorly, like naturally we all sit here and overanalyze everything, every chat on the bench. But you’ve had this joy about you, cheering on Payton Pritchard and the second unit guys in Toronto recently. What’s the chemistry like on this group?
Smart: It’s a brotherhood. You know? We spend so much time together, it's kind of hard for you not to build that chemistry, you have to have it. These younger guys, that second group of guys that comes in for us starters, everybody doesn't see the work they're putting in and staying ready, not knowing, 'OK, am I gonna play today? How many minutes am I going to play? OK, what kind of shots am I going to get? OK, dang if I miss a shot.'
Just everything that goes into it, of being ready coming off that bench and we just want to make sure as a collective unit, that we support each other through the bad and the good. We're going to win together, we're going to lose together.
And I've been doing this for eight years and I know that, when those guys come in, and the starters are sitting, if you're just sitting there looking like you're not even invested, those guys are going to feel the exact same way and their confidence is going to continue to go down. When we come out the game and they look over the bench and we're talking to them, they hear us cheering, encouraging them, they feel good about themselves. And that's only going to help us as a team down the road.
Let's end on this: What's the potential for this group this season?
Smart: Whatever we put our mind to. If we come out with the right mindset, the right focus, I think we can do something big and hang another banner. And I know every team says that, but not every team actually has an opportunity to do that. We're one of the teams that does.
And, the way we've been playing, I think it shows that, not just for us, but it shows to everybody else that they have to come ready to play because we are. And, if not, it could be trouble for you. So, as long as we can stay focused, stay healthy, and play the game the right way and keep having fun, anything's possible for us, literally.