BOSTON – When Celtics coach Brad Stevens was asked about what he can do to replace Marcus Smart following Tuesday afternoon’s practice, the coach responded that Smart does 12 things on the court that no one else can do, and that no one person can replace him.
It was meant as the ultimate compliment, yet the sentiment rings truer than the actual statement. It’s less that Smart does 12 things on the court that no one else can do, it’s that he does 12 things on the court that no one else is willing to do. And he does them each and every play, each and every night, in the first minute all the way through to the 48th.
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If the Celtics are going to survive long enough in these playoffs for Smart to return to the floor to do those things again himself this spring, they are going to have to find a way to emulate Smart’s spirit, fearlessness, relentless and readiness to put his body on the line for any play that could potentially mean the difference between winning and losing.
They are going to have to channel Marcus Smart until Marcus Smart is fit to resume his place as the heart and soul of the Celtics.
The good news is the Celtics did show a bit of that in Sunday’s Game 1 victory. Following a 38-point first half, in which the starters combined for only 16 points, rather than sulk about missed shots, the players doubled down on the type of forceful defense and unwavering physicality that they know they can bring regardless of whether the 3-pointers rim out or glide through the twine.
Smart, who pledged to be on the bench for Game 2 Wednesday night, said he took notice.
“I loved it,” he said Tuesday in his first meeting with the media since suffering the torn oblique that is expected to keep him out of the first two rounds of the postseason. “Anybody who has been in the playoffs, and knows anything about the playoffs, knows it’s not going to be pretty. It’s not going to be easy. You’re going to have games where you’re going to have to grind it out. I think we’ve been seeing that throughout these playoffs around the league, period.
“When you seeing eighth seeds beating No. 1 seeds, it’s a grind-out game. We just can’t take anybody for granted. We’ve got to come out there and slug it out every game.”
Of course, it does sell Smart short to suggest his contributions are based strictly on effort plays. He’s worked hard on his shooting to the point where he topped the 36 percent mark from beyond the arc this season after entering the year at just 29 percent. His court vision has always been a vastly underrated part of his game, and his passing and ball-handling skills give the Celtics that second point guard in the starting lineup to help take the pressure off Kyrie Irving.
“Smarty brings something that you can’t really teach,” Irving said Tuesday. “Just the intangibles of the game. Knowing the players on the floor. Knowing the flow of the game. How smart he is. Just what he brings to our team with the leadership.
“It’s a big-time miss for us. I said it the other day. I miss him. He makes my job a lot easier.”
But Smart was the first to acknowledge on Tuesday that the Celtics have plenty of other talented players who can make up for those facets of his game. They have the defensive potential of Jaylen Brown, who was instrumental in the 26-8 third quarter run in Game 1 with his lock down of Bojan Bogdanovic. They have the playmaking of Gordon Hayward, whose ability to see the floor ranks up with Smart as possibly the best on the team. They have the ball-handling of Terry Rozier, who is thrust into a larger role for the third straight playoffs of his career due to an injury.
They will miss Smart for all those things. But those are all things they can largely duplicate with skill.
It’s the value that Smart brings from within that the Celtics must dig into the deepest part of their core for over the first two rounds of the playoffs. It’s the part of Smart you can’t practice in a gym or typically quantify in box score. It’s the part of Smart that many players tell themselves exists deep inside, but fall well short when it comes to summoning it in the ultimate moments.
It’s the part of Smart that makes those winning plays when the game is on the line.
“He’s an inspiring guy to be around,” Stevens said on Tuesday. “He’s got good passion. He’s a natural-born leader and talker.”
While Smart acknowledged the four-to-six-week recovery prescription Tuesday, he would not put a timetable on his return, noting only that whatever that timetable he is already nine full days into it.
But it will be at least a while. So for the second straight year Smart must put his faith in his teammates to keep the playoff push moving forward until he is healthy enough to lend a shove himself.
In order to do just that, the Celtics must find the simmering Marcus Smart within all of them, and bring it to the arena each and every playoff night.
“We’ve got a few more wins to get,” Irving assured. “Six weeks is not that long of a time.
“So I think I can manage until then.”
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