It’s 2017 and the then-top seeded Boston Celtics found themselves in the most precarious of positions: down 2-0 in the best-of-seven series to the Chicago Bulls.
Boston pulled out a much-needed Game 3 win and were well on their way to evening up the series in Game 4.
That's when a flashpoint occurred -- or a Marcus Smart/Jimmy Butler brouhaha, whichever you like more -- that in hindsight speaks to why this Boston-Miami Eastern Conference finals matchup that begins with Game 1 on Tuesday will be one of the grittiest postseason battles in the Bubble. In large part because of the grit and grind of two men -- Smart and Butler.
They are two of the NBA’s most competitive players, self-proclaimed Dogs of the Hardwood.
And by dogs, we’re not talking about the cute and adorable Pugs and Pamerians of the world.
No, these two are more of the Junkyard Dog variety, the type of players who will bite, scratch and claw their way around and through you if you stand between them and victory.
And while the intensity and competitive drive between these two has been high in the past, there's a calm before the storm vibe around these two now.
“He’s just another opponent I get the opportunity to go up against,” Butler said. “I’m not going to sit up here and make this about me versus him. Because that’s not the case. I don’t think he can win it by himself for the Celtics. I can’t win it by myself for the Heat. So we’re going to focus in on how we can help our team win and not make it a one-on-one, me-versus-him-versus-me. Nah, not that.”
Still, the tough-minded brand of basketball both play will be the template their teammates will try and replicate throughout the series.
Because of their respective roles within the framework of their teams, more attention will be paid to how Smart’s defense matches up against Butler.
Although Boston and Miami played three times this season (Boston won twice), only once were Smart and Butler healthy enough to play in the same game.
That would have been Jan. 28, a game that ended in an eight-point Celtics win.
In that game, Butler was defended by Smart (four minutes, 34 seconds) longer than any other Celtics player.
While matched up against Butler, Smart limited him to just two points on 1-for-3 shooting.
There’s an undeniable respect for one another’s game, especially considering their small-town roots that for both players began to take shape in Texas.
And that competitive fight and spirit that both play with has been instrumental in their individual success as well.
So it should come as no surprise that these two badasses have had a run-in or two during their NBA days, the first significantly notable one being in the 2017 playoffs between the Celtics and the Bulls, who at the time were led by Butler.
During Game 4 of that series, Smart and Butler got into a shoving match during the game which led to some uh, interesting comments from Butler afterwards.
“He’s a great actor, acting tough,” Butler said following the Game 4 loss in 2017 to Smart and the Celtics, who would go on and win the series with four straight wins after dropping the first two games. “That’s what he does, but I don’t think he’s about that. I’m the wrong guy to get in my face. He needs to take it somewhere else because I’m not the one for that.”
After learning of Butler’s comments, Smart had a rebuttal.
“I laugh at that,” Smart said at the time. “It’s about the Celtics versus the Chicago Bulls, not Marcus Smart versus Jimmy. I ain’t got to sit here and say this and say that; I ain’t that type of guy. My actions speak louder than words.”
Their actions will indeed speak loud and boldly beginning with Tuesday night’s opening tilt, a game that will be both physically and mentally taxing in so many ways for all involved, including the two badass Dogs leading their respective packs into battle.