BOSTON — Marcus Smart walked into the Celtics’ locker room following a press conference that marked his return to TD Garden an hour before tip-off. Sporting a splint on his right hand that would again prevent him from facing his former team, he gave Jayson Tatum a hug at his corner locker, darted to Al Horford across the room, then greeted Payton Pritchard and Sam Hauser, who walked in soon after. Smart then briefly chatted with Celtics assistant coach Phil Pressey, one of Smart’s first teammates as a rookie nine years ago, saying he’s just trying to get his finger right.
“(The visitor locker room) is smaller,” Smart said. “It’s different. We all know, but it’s unique. I was able to, for nine years, sit in that locker room and experience the home crowd. I always had to hear about opposing teams coming in here and the difference in what they feel. The uniqueness to be able to be on that side now, to understand how much power playing in the Garden really has.”
Smart missed his second game against his former Celtics with a finger injury he told everyone he reunited with in the locker room that he’s focused on getting right. The hiatus, which has now lasted 13 games, is expected to last several more weeks. He sported a splint on that right ring finger and a denim outfit head-to-toe, able to fully take in a night dedicated to him that included a full video tribute during the first timeout, recognition as the team’s Hero Among Us for his community work during his Boston tenure and thank you Marcus chants throughout. The Celtics’ cheerleaders lined up either side of him as he exited the court after the game. He drew smiles in every room.
The night also came with reminders of the near full restart he’s embarking on. Horford, sharing his perspective on changing teams, called Smart’s return to Boston the first step in moving on to what’s next with a Memphis team that already lost its season before the all-star break due to season-ending injuries to Ja Morant, Steven Adams, traded last week, Brandon Clarke and Desmond Bane joined them on the sideline last month with a severe ankle sprain. Jaren Jackson Jr. and Santi Aldama sat out Sunday’s 131-91 loss to the Celtics, leaving a starting lineup filled with G-League caliber players. Smart gave the Grizzlies similar advice on facing Boston pre-game that he did in November.
“Great insight,” Taylor Jenkins told CLNS Media pre-game. “Leaning in on that knowledge. Obviously, we can go as much as history playing against these guys and watching film of our games, them against other teams, but when you have someone who spent so much time here, knows the intricacies of each individual’s game, their strengths, but also areas you can exploit. The team concept, what you’ve gotta do mentality-wise, to come in here to disrupt one of the high-octane offenses. The physicality you’ve gotta play with on the offensive side, knowing that they switch heavy. They do some unique things. Not to overthink it, but how we’ve gotta continue to pile through that.”
Smart told CLNS his message boiled down to playing free, and G.G. Jackson, Jacob Gilyard and David Roddy embodied that mindset by launching 50 of Memphis’ 92 shots. The Grizzlies played within two points midway through the second quarter with a 14-5 run powered by three-point shooting. That’s as close as they drew though, with Tatum pouring in five threes between the second and third quarters to lead by as many as 40 points. Memphis’ starting lineup could’ve legitimately been their G-League Memphis Hustle starters if the season went as planned for the Grizzlies. Instead, 13 players appeared on the injury report and only eight played. Smart, between two major injuries, has only logged 20 games with his new team.
Yet the Celtics saw Smart in good spirits, far removed from some of the bad feelings over how the trade went down. Smart still wishes, as he told CLNS over the summer, that Boston gave him advanced notice that they were considering moving him. Other than that, he said he holds no ill will toward any of his former teammates or coaches, and appreciates the success Boston has achieved from afar. He even, in his most interesting admission of the night, would’ve made the same trade the Celtics did — as a businessman. Smart smiled when told that Jaylen Brown told reporters in November that he couldn’t stand Smart when he first arrived to Boston in 2016. The feeling was mutual, Smart said.
“We all have siblings and those of us who don’t understand,” Smart said. “That it’s a constant battle and it’s not everyday that I like you, but I love you every day. That’s kind of how me and Jaylen’s relationship and these other guys here has evolved. It might not have started off perfect, but we went through the storm together and were able to come out on the other end and see the rainbow on the other side, pot of gold. Like he said, at first, it wasn’t all peaches, but we love each other to this day and that’s my brother for life.”
As the crowd roared for Smart, Jenkins huddled with his assistant coaches trying to scheme his young Grizzlies back into the game. Smart tore into a group of more regular contributors in November, when Memphis fell one three-pointer short of stunning the Celtics, during timeouts. He showed other teammates positioning tactics and tried to fire up the team. Sunday saw him more relaxed and focused on taking in the environment. Jenkins hoped his teammates would too, though, especially seeing how Smart’s legacy in Boston came as much off the court as on. Jake Fischer reported that the Grizzlies remain interested in keeping Smart beyond the trade deadline despite the team’s losing and injuries continuing. Smart is signed through 2026.
Part of the calculus in Memphis’ addition of Smart, originally, stemmed from his ability to lead a relatively young team trying to make the most of its talent. That opportunity never came this year due to Morant’s 25-game suspension and other sparse availabilities up and down the roster, including his. Smart nonetheless put his arm around his new teammates, Jenkins noticed, leaving some conversations among players in the room private.
“For me, as a point guard, undersized, having to be scrappy and how he plays hard, gritty, having to take some of those things from him,” Gilyard told CLNS pre-game in the locker room. “He gave as much feedback as he could on the (Celtics), but I think it’s gonna come down to, it’s a make-or-miss league and they got a lot of guys who can make shots. Just trying to make it as difficult as possible. He’s been big on charges for me, because I’m smaller and I’m probably in a position to take charges. He’s been on me a good amount about taking charges, but offensively, for me, when I’m getting into the paint, looking to shoot my own shot, he has a little floater he likes to shoot, trying to get me to shoot that and stuff like that. He has a lot of stories, I probably shouldn’t share them, but he’s definitely got a lot of stories he’s told.”