Souza: How A Marcus Smart Return Could Fuel Celtics This Series

That he was talking to media Thursday was the strongest indication yet the heart and soul of the Celtics may be back sooner rather than later.

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BOSTON, MA - APRIL 24: Marcus Smart #36 of the Boston Celtics reacts to a call during the second quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game Five in Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden on April 24, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

BOSTON – The Chronicles of Marcus Smart have been must-see viewing at the end of Celtics Auerbach Center workouts since the beginning of the playoffs. Each day, as Brad Stevens and a parade of one, two or three active players march through the mounting media masses, eyes wander and cell phone cameras scan the gym for the one player whose anticipated return to the court grows with each sprint and shot attempt.

First, it was jogging on the treadmill. Then it was set shots. Then it was a touch of lift on 3-pointers and a full-out run. On Thursday, it was drives to the basket, sharp cuts and the first hints of contact to the torn oblique that was to keep him away from basketball activities for at least four to six weeks, and the first full two rounds of the playoffs.

That was 25 days ago as of Thursday, and two games into the conference semifinals, for a player who takes pride in conquering all timetables when it comes to returning from injuries.

“Today was a great day,” a smiling Smart said after nearly an hour-long public display. “I was able to do some things more and more. This is the next step in this process of getting me back on the court to be able to do simple things like basketball activities, such as driving to the rim and really getting that movement up with my torso, and abdominal muscles, and to see how that affects me.”

While Smart was ruled “Out” for Game 3 about two hours after practice ended, and refused to put a timetable on his return Thursday, there is little doubt he is getting closer and closer to that taste of playoff basketball that he has been robbed of to start two straight postseasons.

“If I get bumped just walking down the street, two weeks ago that was excruciating pain,” he said. “This week it’s better. Like I said, day by day, it continues to get better.”

Smart said he has yet to go through a full-contact practice, and a comeback for Monday’s Game 4 would allow one more opportunity for that before a return on what would be the four-week anniversary of the injury. A slightly more conservative – and perhaps far more realistic – forecast would have him back for Game 5 Wednesday in Milwaukee, or Game 6, assuming its necessity, Friday night in Boston with the season hanging in the balance for one of the teams.

“Everyone knows what Marcus brings to the table in terms of defensively, intangibles, loose balls, and stuff like that,” teammate Jaylen Brown said at the start of the series. “We need guys like that. But we need to have guys who step up (until he returns). I am one of those guys who needs to step up, and I’m looking forward to that.”

While the first five games of the playoffs hinted at a theme with this team all season – that perhaps the Celtics actually play better with at least one of their main rotation players out due to more opportunities spread out among the remaining key contributors – the Game 2 blowout loss in Milwaukee was evidence that this team will need what Smart brings to the floor if it is to extend the season into the conference finals, and beyond.

“Just knowing there was nothing I could do out there was devastating for me,” Smart said of Tuesday night’s debacle of a third quarter, “to see those guys fight and struggle, and I’m not out there with them.”

Yet, Smart was out there on Thursday as his teammates prepared for Game 3. Then, as one after the other retreated to the locker room rather than rehash Game 2 with the media, Smart joined only Jayson Tatum as players who talked to the full-fledged scrum of cameras, microphones and Twitter posters.

Injured NBA players are required to speak with the media once following the injury – which Smart did nine days after suffering the torn oblique – and not again until they return to practice. While Smart was careful to dissuade the conclusion that this was fully that, that he was talking to media Thursday was the strongest indication yet the heart and soul of the Celtics may be back sooner rather than later.

“Today was a good day for us,” he said. “Next step is full, live contact.”

Smart’s return will necessitate another adjustment for Stevens and the team. Minutes for Terry Rozier, Brown or Tatum may get a trim, and touches will be reduced with the ball often in the hands of Smart, Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward at the initial point of attack.

But while the first-round playoff series against the Pacers was relatively clean, this one is bound to get dirty for the Celtics before it is all said and done, and with Smart’s return will be the reassurance that there is one more player on that bench who is simply dying to get back down to doing the dirty work in search of a spot in the NBA Finals.