Marcus Smart's journey from Celtics polarizing force to parquet hero

One of the most polarizing members of the franchise in recent years once again walked off the parquet with the city of Boston in his grasps.

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BOSTON – A year ago this week Marcus Smart walked into a Seaport bowling alley for his charity event with a bandaged thumb less than a week out of surgery, and a sincere concern whether he would ever again play a game in a Celtics uniform.

Sunday afternoon at TD Garden, one of the most polarizing members of the franchise in recent years once again walked off the parquet with the city of Boston in the clutch of his grasp.

A torn ligament with six weeks’ recovery time last March meant the Celtics had to at least get to the end of a long first-round series before he would have a chance to play. Looming free agency meant if Boston could not extend the season amid a rash of injuries, which included season-ending knee surgery for Kyrie Irving, Smart’s final play in Boston could have been the dive to the floor for a loose ball against the Indiana Pacers that caused the tear.

Long-respected by fans, hoop heads, and perhaps most especially Celtics coach Brad Stevens, for his spirit, relentlessness and ability to come through in the clutch, Smart remained an enigma to casual fans and much of the talking-head media. They couldn’t understand why a player, picked No. 6 overall in the draft, who averages less than 10 points per game and was one of the worst shooters in the league by most metrics, could be so revered.

When Smart’s restricted free agency hit, his demands for a contract in the $13 million-per-year range struck those skeptics as ridiculous, while much of the hardcore base considered his intangibles priceless. After reports said he was initially “hurt” and “disgusted” with the team’s slow-moving negotiations, Smart agreed to the four-year, $52-million contract that extended his time in his adopted city.

“I love Boston,” was his message to the fans after finalizing the deal, “and Boston loves me.”

Seventy games into his fifth NBA season, that love has edged toward being universal toward the Oklahoma State product. Amid a year where the team has often underachieved, appeared disjointed at times, and when nearly every player in the rotation has taken his turn as the punching bag for frustration with diminishing championship expectations, Smart has been the one member of the Celtics whose effort has never wavered, and who has increased his respect level among both worshipers and long-time detractors.

“My teammates are always telling me it starts with you,” Smart said following his 16-point, nine-assist, five-steal effort in a 129-120 victory against the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday. “It feels good from that aspect of a lot my ability to change the game on the defensive end. That’s something that’s crucial and unique about me. It helps this team. So I’ve got to be able to do it every night.”

On Sunday, he did it with theft after theft down the stretch after the Celtics had blown a 25-point lead. Each time the Hawks began to feel good about their ability to pull off a comeback for the ages, Smart literally took their belief and confidence, and ripped it right out of their hearts, as he ripped the ball right out of their hands.

“You can go through a lot of our games that were close,” Stevens said, “that we end up pulling away, or a lot of games like this where you win late, and he makes the play where he just rips the ball away. He just gets a ball he’s not supposed to get, gets his hands on a ball very few people get their hands on.

“He did a great job. We lean on him for that. That’s his uniqueness.”

The play has been dubbed the “Cobra Strike” for Smart’s ability to pounce so quickly and ferociously on defense that the ball-handler never knows what hit him.

“It’s an instinct thing,” said Smart, who has a “Cobra Strike: Strike Hard, Strike Fast” T-shirt out to raise money for his YounGameChangers Foundation. “Not many people have it. And the people that do are tremendous at it. It’s amazing when you see them do the things that they do. It’s definitely an instinct thing and it’s something I have.”

It’s something hoop junkies and the basketball intelligentsia united around through the ups and downs of his four years in Boston, while puzzled looks plagued those who just did not get the fascination.

Perhaps, it’s Smart’s improved shooting this season – a 53.8 effective field-goal percentage, compared to a 44.9 career mark – that increases his appeal as a true two-way player. Perhaps, it is how Smart has embraced every role that has been asked of him, while others went through trying adjustments periods that made them look selfish or hard-headed. Or, perhaps, a player like Smart just takes some time to grow on some people.

But at the end of his first year in his second contract with the Celtics, the player who feared for his future in the city one year ago is now one of the most widely embraced members of the franchise.

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