Marcus Smart remains the most polarizing player on the Boston Celtics.
A week that started with Smart calling out teammates Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown while critical of the team’s late-game offense, ended with a Smart mental defensive lapse that helped the Dallas Mavericks sneak out with a win on a Luka Doncic buzzer-beater.
Looking to put the exclamation point on a positives-filled, three-game road trip, the Celtics on Saturday rallied back from a 19-point deficit, watched Tatum snap out of his early season shooting funk, and secured a brief fourth-quarter lead after Smart drilled a 3-pointer with just over 2 minutes to play.
But then everything went wrong culminating with Smart’s improbable foul give in the closing seconds. Before that …
- Dennis Schroder dribbled the ball off Tatum’s foot trying to break out in transition after a Dallas miss with Boston out front late. The Mavericks made it hurt when Kristaps Porzingis sneaked in behind a napping Tatum for a putback dunk that tied the game with 99 seconds to play.
- Schroder tried to attack the basket on the ensuing possession but got swallowed up at the rim. Some Robert Williams hustle helped Boston get the ball back.
- Alas, Schroder turned the ball over trying to dish off a drive in a tied game with little more than a minute to play.
- The Mavericks missed a wide-open 3 giving Boston another chance to produce a go-ahead bucket. This time Smart drove baseline and tried to get a foul while generating contact with Porzingis. The referees swallowed their whistles — like they have in those instances for much of the season — and the Mavericks got the ball with a 6.6-second differential between the shot clock and game clock.
Here’s where things got particularly infuriating. Williams nearly picked off an inbounds pass, forcing the Mavs to re-inbound with 14.7 seconds to go and only 8 seconds on the shot clock. Doncic got the ball at three-quarters court and wasn’t even over the midcourt stripe with under five seconds on the shot clock (and 11.4 on the game clock) when Smart improbably gave a non-shooting foul.
“There was no strategy. It was not supposed to be a foul,” said Udoka. "A few of the guys asked me coming out of timeout and I let them know, and just a mistake there. But that's on me. I gotta let everybody know and make sure they know. Obviously, a five-, six-second differential, we want that last shot, so I gotta communicate that to everybody so everybody knows.”
Udoka can try to take some of the heat off Smart, but a player who typically makes every right play in crunch-time moments should have known better in that instance. Even if Smart simply chases Doncic and contests, the worst-case scenario is Dallas’ young star making a tough 3 and Boston having enough time to try to respond.
With an ability to hold for the final shot, Doncic made it hurt. He got it up over a trio of nearby Celtics defenders and made the 3 — his second game-winner against Boston in less than a year’s time.
Instead of sailing into a three-day break with the team gushing positive energy, the Celtics had to navigate their postgame press conferences without pointing fingers. Smart didn’t meet with reporters on Saturday in Dallas. His miscue will now fester into a three-day break.
Tatum, talking to reporters Saturday for the first time since Smart’s critical comments earlier this week suggested that Smart should have kept the comments in-house. But he did resist the urge to fire back on a night when it might have been OK to challenge Smart’s decision-making.
“There's certain things that -- I wouldn't come out here and tell you guys about our game plan, specifically,” said Tatum. "I think the moral of it is, it happened. You can't change it. We still a team, we still figuring it out, we still trying to win games.
"It's not like I'm upset or sad about whatever. It happened. I'm a big believer of whatever happened, happened. You can't change it. Let's move on and try to figure it out."
Tatum also had some mature comments while addressing his recent slump.
"I think addressing not always just the 60- and 50-point games and those big moments. Your favorite player struggles, they miss shots, they go in slumps," Tatum said. "Understanding that I'm gonna figure it out. I don't doubt myself. It's a process, but it is frustrating that you, not necessarily worry about what people say about you, but the pressure that I put on myself, the goals I want to obtain doesn't have anything to do with how good people think I am or how bad they think I'm playing.
"It's always internal and me trying to be as great as I want to be, you go through tough times. But not to ever shy away from it. You've got to be the same person when you're scoring 60 and the same person when you're 3-for-15 and you're losing a couple games and everybody's looking at you.
"I think everybody saw the quote that Dame [Lillard] had, 'Tough times, they show your true character.' I think that was spot on. You've always gotta stand on that and keep your head high through the ups and downs. It's just a part of it.”
Who knows what happens if Smart doesn’t give the foul. Maybe the game goes to overtime and the Celtics falter there.
They can lament not only Smart’s foul give, but a bunch of missed free throws. They can fret about the turnovers. All the little things are even more important when you’re a team thin on top-end talent.
But Smart put the spotlight back on himself at the end of at trip where the conversation could have been about how his original comments forced the team to rally together in the aftermath.