BOSTON — Marcus Smart is back in the Celtics’ facilities, focusing on weight training and continuing a recovery regimen to return to from an array of postseason injuries. It’s been less than three months since the NBA Finals concluded at TD Garden, with Smart playing through a right foot sprain following the Milwaukee series, a sprained right ankle suffered midway through the east finals, and he aggravated a long-running right thigh ailment that forced him to miss Game 2 against the Bucks.
Smart is beginning to approach 100% as training camp looms later this month, telling CLNS Media in an exclusive interview at his pop-up shop for his YounGameChanger foundation in Allston that he’s still recovering from the ankle injury. Ime Udoka emphasized rest for a banged-up Celtics group after a long postseason run and Smart spent most of the summer trying to slowly ramp up toward next season, his ninth in Boston.
“My ankle is feeling better, it’s still healing, so I’m dealing with that,” Smart told CLNS. “Just giving it as much rest as I can, but definitely back on the court. I’m definitely back into the action. It feels like yesterday we just started playing, we haven’t really missed a beat, but I’m definitely doing everything I can to be ready for next season and to go deeper. I’m pretty close (to 100%), obviously it’s September, you don’t want to be in June, July, May shape right now so I’m trying not to go too crazy, but I’m really close and I’ve been doing this going into my ninth season. So for me, I know exactly what I need and what I need to get myself ready so I’ll so be there.”
This offseason marked one of the first in Smart’s career where his standing on the Celtics hadn’t been in question, posting career-best production as a point guard and claiming defensive player of the year honors as he begins a four-year extension with the Celtics he signed last summer. That hasn’t been the case for Jaylen Brown, whose name constantly appeared in trade reports throughout July connecting him to talks between the Celtics and Nets regarding Kevin Durant’s future.
Smart and Brown connected in Los Angeles for workouts in mid-August, one of the opportunities Smart had to get on the floor and amid his rest and recovery. Smart saw Brown taking the rumors in stride after he returned from travel abroad in Europe. Smart mirrored Grant Williams sentiment when he reached out to Brown about not taking the mentions personally, and two weeks later Durant rescinded his request. Brad Stevens appeared on WEEI the next day to reveal he’d been in contact and had candid conversations with Brown throughout the process, asserting that the Celtics felt good about its roster once they made the Malcolm Brogdon trade.
“(Brown’s) handled it great,” Smart said. “He walks around with a smile on his face. We actually haven’t even mentioned it when we were together. We were just talking about the upcoming season and getting ourselves ready, but he’s great. He’s handling it as professionally as he can and my advice is, to anybody, don’t forget it’s a business first. When you’re doing business, personal stuff has to go out the window and can’t be the issue, so you can’t look at it like that. If your name is up there in trade talks, I look at it as a compliment. It means teams want you. That’s a good thing. The problem is if your name is not (in rumors), nobody wants you. So that’s how I’m looking at it and that’s how people should look at it. It’s tough, I understand it, but just because it’s going on, you never know. Anything can happen.”
Once the Durant saga ended, new Celtics forward Danilo Gallinari traveled to Europe to compete for World Cup qualifiers and EuroBasket with Italy. The team beat Ukraine and moved on to play Georgia one week ago when Gallinari stumbled catching a pass in transition and exited the game. An MRI initially revealed a torn left meniscus, then further evaluation by the Celtics’ medical staff this week revealed a torn ACL.
The injury puts Gallinari’s season in doubt after he hoped to be a floor spacer, veteran presence and front court option for the younger Celtics. Smart saw video of the play and was immediately devastated, but is emphasizing that others will need to step up in his play. The team, according to the Boston Globe, has high hopes for second-year forward Sam Hauser in his place.
“I haven’t talked to him I’ve been doing a lot, but (I was) definitely was keeping up with him,” Smart said. “You never want to see anybody get hurt, let alone on your team, but anybody. Somebody like Gallo who’s coming in and was going to help us tremendously, it definitely pushes us back a little bit, but it’s the NBA, we’re professionals, we have other guys on the roster and it’s time for them to step up.”
As for Brogdon, who will now be the team’s primary addition, they’ll need to adapt to sharing the ball and facilitating responsibilities in the back court. Questions about their roles were settled quickly after signing, with Udoka indicating the team’s starters will remain the same at Summer League.
Smart and Brogdon knew each other before the former Bucks and Pacers guard’s arrival in Boston at the team facilities last month. Between Brogdon’s shooting, passing and ball-handling abilities, Smart saw the attributes the team needed that he can bring to the table and believes he’ll make the game easier for everyone.
“My girlfriend is actually really good friends with his brother’s girlfriend, so I’ve kind of known Malcolm for a while and (he’s a) cool guy,” Smart said. “I love his game. I love everything he brings. When I’m playing against him, I love it, I’m constantly talking to him. Just the challenge that he brings, he allows me to be the better version of myself. I think it’s a perfect fit. He provides some of the things that we’re going to need and it definitely takes pressure off of me, Jayson and Jaylen.”
As the Celtics prepare to reunite this week nearly in full ahead of training camp’s official start at the end of September, they haven’t looked back at the NBA Finals as a team. That fell in line with Udoka’s message of getting away once the season ended. They’ve thought about it individually, Jayson Tatum thinking about it almost every day, Grant realizing the discipline the team needs to achieve, while Smart discovered the highs-and-lows the Finals experience brings.
Boston turned from a jubilant Game 7 win in Miami to a blowout win over the Warriors in San Francisco to open round. They led late in Game 4, on the verge of a 3-1 lead, then unraveled from there. The season provided Smart his highly-valued opportunity to be himself at the point guard position. The arrival of Udoka and point guard mentor Damon Stoudamire gave the coaching staff new perspective on how to uplift players when they’re down, as Smart was early in the season.
Looking back, Smart saw finding comfort in making mistakes, buying into a team concept and learning Udoka’s new schemes as the key to arguably the greatest in-season turnaround in NBA history. Udoka and Al Horford both stressed a return to the top stage isn’t promised though.
“You hear it all the time, it’s a lesson, but it’s tough when you’ve got to take the lesson the hard way,” Smart said. “We have to take the lesson the hard way. We learned a lot out of our experience and unfortunately we had to lose to do that, but we now know what it takes to play, to be there, the stress it takes on you, mentally, physically, emotionally. You kind of figure when and when not to be too excited about it, how to play it and how to keep yourself calm. It was a lot of factors that we’ve learned individually and as a group from this … it’s tough to have to learn the hard way … it’s still fresh for us, so guys are really just trying to wait, but once we do start talking, we’ll get that out there, but right now we’re just giving ourselves a break.”
Smart hosted the pop-up store on Saturday for his YounGameChanger foundation, aimed at providing children battling cancer normal experiences, seeking cures for the different types of the disease and alleviating the stress on families through treatment. Camellia, Smart’s mother, died in 2018 from myelodysplastic syndrome, a form of blood cancer. He lost his brother Todd Westbrook to cancer in 2004.
Smart and his team sold t-shirts that celebrated his 2022 defensive player of the year award, YGC bags and hats to a group of fans that showed up, then spent time signing them. His biggest goal on Friday was giving back to fans in Boston for the love they’ve shown him. The foundation is into his ninth year and the event stemmed from feedback Smart got from the clothing designs from fans.
“We have these Smart carts that we wheel out to be able to go to the hospitals at Children’s and every cart has up-to-date technology from iPads to tablets,” Smart said. “Everything that allows a kid to be a kid, still being active in life while they’re confined in the little room that they’re in. So we’ve been doing a lot of things, the fundraiser, we do a bowling event and just finding ways to get the message out and to get everybody involved.”