BOSTON — There’s a case to be made that Marcus Smart, at this point, is more banged up than either Kemba Walker or Gordon Hayward.
Walker, thankfully, avoided serious injury after his scary collision with Semi Ojeleye on Friday in Denver and the training staff, in an abundance of caution, merely wants to see him get through an off-day workout to test his neck sprain before they turn him loose on the court again. Hayward needs a few more weeks to let his surgically repaired hand fracture heal but has been able to ramp up his shooting work in recent days.
Then there’s Smart, who trudged to the podium Monday with his latest battle scar. This time it was black tape over much of his left hand to brace the twice-jammed knuckle on his left ring finger.
Smart said he was fine. Then noted he might need some X-rays on Tuesday. But mostly he’s fine. Because it’s going to take a lot more than a bum knuckle to keep the guy who’s played the past few years with shards of glass lodged in his right hand from playing when his team is shorthanded.
By the end of Boston’s road trip out west, Smart was walking around the locker room like he was 85 instead of 25. He had a couple of sprained fingers, a twice-bruised right hip, and a tender ankle after a bad-looking sprain in Phoenix. Smart said he got lucky that the ankle injury wasn’t as bad as it appeared but we can’t rule out the notion that he’s just playing through some absurd malady.
That’s just what Smart does.
Of course, it was Smart who, with Boston clinging to a one-point lead with less than 30 seconds to play on Monday night, wrestled the ball straight out of the hands of Bogdan Bogdanovic as Sacramento looked for a go-ahead bucket. As the flame-throwing Buddy Hield approached looking for a handoff, Smart punched the ball free and pounced on the loose ball. He got blocked by Hield trying to finish at the other end but Boston maintained possession and that was enough to help the Celtics escape with a 103-102 triumph at TD Garden.
Right before his defensive heroics, Smart generated Boston’s final two buckets. The first was a 17-foot fadeaway from the top of the right block, the ball bouncing straight up off the front rim before rattling home with 48.7 seconds to play to give the Celtics a 101-99 lead.
It was particularly fitting, at least when you remember how Smart’s floater had improbably bounced out eight days ago in Sacramento as Boston’s 10-game winning streak got snapped.
"When I shot it and I seen it hit the rim again, I was like, ‘Not again. I gotta get it this time,’” joked Smart. "It felt good to see the ball finally go in and it’s just ironic that it happened to bounce like that, and this time I got it.”
Smart then spun his way directly through Cory Joseph before banking home a layup with 31.2 seconds to produce the winning points.
Smart finished with 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting to go along with a team-high seven assists, five steals, and a block. Smart didn’t turn the ball over while logging a team-high 36 minutes, 42 seconds of floor time.
Still, he left, ahem, smarting about the big day that Hield had for the Kings. Sacramento’s hero from that game out west continued a trend of career games against Boston by putting up 41 points while hitting 11 3-pointers (the most ever against the Celtics). When the league’s matchup data comes out, a small batch of those points will likely have come against Smart, though Hield was an equal-opportunity bucket-giver on a night when Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were tasked with using their length against him.
Hield made the Celtics pay each time they struggled to fight through a screen or a few instances when they unfathomably lost him. But Smart wasn’t about to let another game get away.
Nothing Smart does now ought to surprise us. We spent most of the West Coast trip telling you why he should be in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation, and the late-game strip of Bogdanovic is Exhibit 57 why. That Smart keeps giving up his body for this team only reaffirms how much he yearns to win.
Smart has saved some of his finest play for crunch time and that’s accentuated his value to the team. When the rest of the young Celtics tightened up Monday — Tatum airballing a long jumper with a chance to seal the win — Smart just kept making his usual winning plays. Smart now has a league-best 13 assists in crunch time this season with only one turnover in 39 crunch-time minutes. He’s steady and reliable.
After the final buzzer on Monday, after he re-aggravated his jammed knuckle while fighting for position as Bogdanovic’s last-second prayer clanged off the back rim, Smart high-fived a series of teammates near the Boston bench before a trainer followed him on a dash to the back.
The knuckle injury first cropped up this summer with Team USA and contributed to Smart shutting himself down at the end of the tournament. But even these early-season Celtics games matter to Smart and, with Walker, Hayward, and Daniel Theis (illness) all out on Monday, Smart knew he had to be out on the court.
Not that he likely gave much thought to the opposite. And a jammed knuckle probably won’t either.
“Right when I started to get the feel back for it, the last [shot] happened, it re-aggravated it again,” said Smart. "Everything’s alright. Got it compressed and just going to evaluate it [Tuesday] and see how it is.”
Smart was barely spotted on the injury report before this. It’d be a surprise if he lands there moving forward. Nope, just duct tape up his latest malady and off he goes.
At the end of Boston’s road trip, Smart could barely pull his sweatpants to his waist because of the gigantic ice pack a trainer had strapped to him after the loss in Denver. Smart had re-re-aggravated the bruised hip that bothered him all trip. But he laughed when this reporter asked him if the pain might sideline him.
"It’s funny because, after [diving to create a turnover against the Clippers], Jayson was telling me, “Get up, ain’t no lying around here, we got 18 seconds left to get this,” recalled Smart with a smile. "As sore as I was, I had to keep it going. It’s part of the game, it’s part of who I am. I’ve been playing this way my whole life. You find ways to get over those bumps and bruises and just keep going.”
So what hurts now?
“Everything,” said Smart. "Just the whole general soreness of the body. But I've played this way for my whole life and you kinda get used to it. And you kinda learn how to adapt and move on from it.”
And, if you’re Marcus Smart, you learn how to keep making winning plays despite everything that ails you.
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