Marcus Smart had a fine game all around. During Boston’s 26-point comeback against the Houston Rockets, three days after Christmas, the fourth-year guard contributed in every category, putting up 13 points, six rebounds, five assists, three blocks, and two steals in 34 minutes. He shouldered over screens on one end and into the lane on the other. Late in the first half, he picked James Harden’s dribble clean, took it the other way for a layup, bolted back out to midcourt, and almost intercepted the ensuing inbounds pass.
Still, it was the pair of offensive fouls Smart drew on Harden as the Rockets tried to inbound the ball in the last 10 seconds—the first with the Celtics still down one, the second with them finally protecting a lead, each a flop of the most shameless and effective sort—that afterward siphoned the attention. Al Horford, postgame: “It just shows the value of Marcus Smart to our group.” Harden: “How else am I supposed to get open? Guy has two arms wrapped around my body.” Smart: “Defense wins games, and that was proven tonight.”
Smart is widely understood as a nuisance, a born bother: he hauls his ample frame onto the court and sets about shoving it into people. The classification mostly fits. He has the face for the job (stagily unintimidated, a bouncer’s loose stare), the statistics (36 percent shooting, 30 percent from three), and the repertoire (a muscly abandon that turns to wounded flailing when the opportunity for a whistle presents itself). He earns the requisite quotes; “He’s a guy that figures out ways to win,” says Brad Stevens. But the key to Smart’s importance* to the first-place Celtics is that he isn’t just a grunt. Stapled to all that gruntishness are skills—crude in their particulars, maybe, but rare in their combinations—that add a dimension that’s always a little surprising, considering the source.
*stalled importance, for now, as Smart has gone and injured himself by getting in a fistfight with a piece of hotel artwork
Here’s a moment from a game a couple of weeks later, against the Philadelphia 76ers in London. The Sixers’ T.J. McConnell had grabbed a rebound and turned upcourt when Smart, with a combination of hip check and quadrupedal sprawl, wrestled the ball back from him. A half-second later, he was up off the deck and the ball was out of his hands, sent on a line to Jaylen Brown, who dropped it in at the rim.
The play laid out Smart’s often-overlooked range—he can be an enforcer one second and a clever enough passer the next, a costume change from Ron Artest to, say, George Hill—but also his vital trait: a sustained willingness to make those changes, to jump roles from lineup to lineup, possession to possession, moment to moment. Strong-willed in carrying out his duties, Smart is indifferent to which duties those are. He flattens smaller guards in the post; he walls off middle drives; he runs a clean pick-and-roll and throws a punctual skip pass. As a kind of sacrifice to Boston’s flow, he takes his open jumpers, increasingly embarrassing percentages be damned. At any coordinates of the court and every moment of the game, he’ll find something to do.
This is not to say that he’d be the same player minus his gift for irritation; that grab-bag of B-level NBA talents plays better because of the packaging. When he checks in, Smart’s matchups aren’t thinking about the standard, useful basketball functions he can perform. They’re thinking about the guiltless elbows and the put-on hustle. They see the well-maintained caricature, the thing that summons a “MAHCUS!” from Tommy Heinsohn every time Smart dives for a ball that has already bounced into the second row. And while they’re figuring out how to coexist with him for five minutes without earning a fine or getting their teeth lodged in their soft palate, he’s picking out shooters in semi-transition.
It’s easy to appreciate his usefulness. Smart fills a winning archetype—the blustering, overconfrontational, you love him when he’s your teammate pain in the ass—while minimizing that archetype’s usual drawbacks. He is a clear plus on defense and a subtler plus on offense, and that adds up to a solidly functional seventh man.
But if you care to look for it, you can even spot some actual joy, some relation to beauty, in this player known for scraping the joy and beauty off of everyone else’s game. It’s in the metamorphoses, the moments when he sloughs off the full-body scowl and displays a quick, kind of stunning awareness of the sport’s fluid component. Watching Smart find a backdoor cutter, in stride and on time, is in some small way uncanny, like seeing a stone smooth itself. And then he’s MAHCUS! again, putting his knee into somebody’s quadriceps.
After that game against Philadelphia, which ended up an 11-point win, a sideline reporter asked Smart about his contribution. He hadn’t had a great day numbers-wise, but he’d been relentlessly and sub-statistically involved, tilting the terms of any number of exchanges in the Celtics’ favor. He mopped his face with a towel and said, “Got to be a pest coming off the bench.” Then he walked off, reputation and ruse intact.