SAN FRANCISCO – Early in life, Boston’s Marcus Smart learned two aspects about himself that helped him later in life.
The youngest of four brothers, Smart said. “You ain’t got no choice but to be tough, and that’s just how it was.”
That explains his toughness.
And endless energy left his mom exasperated.
“Just constantly going, couldn’t sit still,” Smart said. “And my mom, she put me in every sport. I played football. I played basketball. I played soccer. I played baseball. A little bit of everything, just to try to wear me down. Then when she realized it’s not working and I’m just still going like the Energizer Bunny, she was like, ‘Listen, there’s nothing I can do.’
“And from then on for me it’s something I adopted and really took it head on. That’s what I pride myself on, just being able to keep going. ”
That explains Smart’s motor.
Being physical and relentless has made Smart one of the premier defenders in the NBA, and he was rewarded for his work on that side of the basketball, earning the 2021-22 Defensive Player of the Year award – the first guard to win the award since Gary Payton in 1996.
In the Finals against Golden State, Smart has the toughest assignments because of the way Boston switches so much: defend Steph Curry, Andrew Wiggins, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
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At his size (6-4, 220 pounds), he can defend guards and forwards which allows more versatility for Boston’s defense, which was the top-rated defense in the league this season.
“He brings physicality every night, kind of gets everybody else in line,” Celtic coach Ime Udoka said.
Playing elite defense requires physical skills, smarts and focus.
“Not a lot of people like to sit down and play defense,” Smart said. “It’s not fun. It’s not glamorous at all. You’re not going to get any or much of the credit. None of that. But you have to be willing to take that challenge and just go do it. ”
Ahead of Game 5 on Monday (9 pm ET, ABC), Smart talked with USA TODAY Sports about his defense and his growth as a player.
As executives around the league search for elite defenders, Smart said, “It’s not easy. You’re exhausted. You’re stressed out, whether it’s basketball or non-basketball. You’re injured and then you have to be able to get out there and keep going. Not a lot of people want to do the hard things. That’s what separates certain guys. “
Smart was injured during the playoffs with multiple right leg and foot issues. He missed one game against Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference semifinals and two games against Miami in the conference finals.
“My teammates just kept telling me, ‘We do not care how hurt you are, we need you – 65-70% of you is better than none of you, so give us everything you can, we’ll help you and pick up everything that we can that you can not, ‘”Smart said after Celtics beat Miami in Game 7.
The Celtics rely on his toughness (even as he takes heat on social media for his flopping theatrics that are amplified with multiple gifs).
They also rely on his leadership. “Marcus is emotional as a player and the things he says and the way he plays and wears it on his sleeve,” Udoka said. “He may go about it in a different way than others, but he is who he is.”
After a loss to Chicago earlier this season, Smart criticized teammates Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown for not passing as much as he thought they should. Boston was struggling at the time, part of an 18-21 start that made a Finals appearance five months later seem unlikely. The Celtics avoided a major fallout but players privately needed to clear the air and they did.
“The thing about the Chicago game was that nothing said publicly had not been said privately,” Udoka said. “Although it may rub people wrong because it was said publicly, that was something we were working on behind the scenes every day, film session, one-on-one sessions. We all understood the areas we need to improve. That was what it was and we moved past that pretty quickly. ”
Smart has become more comfortable in his role with the Celtics, especially as they determined he was the point guard they needed after exploring different answers with Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Dennis Schroder. Turns out, Smart was the answer.
Now, he does not always play the role of traditional point guard because Tatum and Brown handle the ball so much, but Udoka said, “I’m not the type of coach that wants to call a play every time down. I leave it in his hands and he usually makes the right decision, understands who to get going and who’s hot, who the hot guys are. ”
Smart averaged a career-high 5.9 assists, shot over 40% from the field for the second time in his eight-year career and started every game he played for the first time.
“I got a chance, an opportunity, and not only that, just continued to work and never being satisfied,” he said. “Just being patient, just understanding I could only control what I can control. Can’t worry about anything else. That helped a lot.
“Once my mindset changed – not saying it was bad – everything else started falling into place. There was more trust, more opportunities on both ends of the court, more recognition of what I bring to the table defensively and offensively and to this team. “
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Marcus Smart brings defensive acumen to NBA Finals vs. Warriors: