Sometimes, Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart empowers his star teammates. Other times, Smart pushes Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to improve their ball movement.
For most of the 2022-23 NBA season, Smart has liked what he’s seen. Not only do the Celtics (23-10) enter their matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks (22-10) on Christmas Day (5 ET, ABC/ESPN) with the Eastern Conference’s best record, Tatum has averaged a career-high 30.9 points while Brown has posted career highs in points per game (26.2), shooting percentage (49%), rebounds (7.5) and assists (3.5).
“This is the best they’ve played as a tandem and individually,” Smart told NBA.com. “It’s just with the way they’re reading the game and letting the game come to them more.”
Smart hasn’t been too bad, either. While averaging 11.8 points and 7.3 assists, Smart has overseen one of the league’s top-ranked offenses. And even without injured center Robert Williams III to protect the rim, Smart has helped the Celtics’ defense stay in the middle of the pack.
Smart spoke to NBA.com about a number of topics, including Tatum’s MVP chances, holding both the Celtics’ stars and role players accountable, the Celtics’ Finals loss to Golden State, possibly securing a second consecutive Kia Defensive Player of the Year award and first-year head coach Joe Mazzulla.
Editor’s note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.
NBA.com: How have Jayson and Jalen improved their chemistry?
Smart: They’re trusting their guys more. They understand if I make the pass early, I can still get the ball back and I’m going to get a great shot. If it’s not for me, somebody else is going to get a great shot. It’s just making the game easier for them. They understand they’re going to get a lot of shots. But they also understand they’re going to get a lot of eyes on them. So, they can be decoys sometimes and conserve their energy so that they have it when they need to use it, especially late in the fourth [quarter]. That’s gut-check time. Then, you have to get a tough shot. That’s for those guys. That’s where they make their money. They have to have the legs for that. They’ve been really good with understanding all of that.
We all know what Jayson can do. But there are going to be nights that Jayson doesn’t have it. There are going to be nights where teams do a good job with taking Jayson out of the game. It’s on me and JB and other guys. The way JB is picking up the slack and the way he’s doing it, you have to take your hat off. If he was on any other team, he’d probably be in the MVP race as well.
Obviously, Jayson is in the MVP conversation. What do you think he has to do the rest of the season to win that award?
We got to win. If our team wins and he’s continuing to play how he’s playing, it’s hard not to give it to him. We have the best offense in the league and probably in history. We have the No. 1 best player. He’s also the only one in the league in the MVP race that has the most minutes played. He’s not missing games. He wants to be out there. You got [other] guys missing games, for whatever reason. But this guy comes to work every day and he’s doing it consistently. So, it’s kind of hard not to give it to him if we keep winning.
As talented as Tatum and Brown are, what role do you think you’ve played with their growth both with your playmaking role and holding them accountable?
I’m just challenging them. I go up against those guys offensively and defensively. They have to guard me and I have to guard them. They’re seeing looks from some of the best defenders in the league – me, D-White [Derrick White], Malcolm [Brogdon], Payton [Pritchard]. They’re constantly seeing different looks on a daily basis so that they can learn how to attack when they see these types of defenses in a game. It helps when they play against a player of my caliber who is as aggressive, good with his hands and quick and has an IQ to get the job done against them. It’s just about challenging them in every aspect – challenging them to be the best they can be and challenging them to be an overall great player. These guys have worked their tail off for so long. I want to give them that extra little boost.
Certain times you’ve called guys out. Other times you’ve said you try to praise teammates through the ups and downs. What examples from last season and this season do you think were critical with taking either approach?
It’s just about holding everybody accountable in any way that is. Last season, everybody heard what I said about how teams are scouting us and it was taken as me calling out Jayson and Jaylen. I was just letting everybody know, including them, that this is how teams are looking at you guys when they’re scouting. I’ve been told from players and coaches that beat us. As a player and a competitor, when you get knocked out and you lose, you want to know how they did it. I want to know the schemes and what they’re thinking. I’m asking other players that we played, ‘What was your scheme against us?’ So the next time we play, I have a heads up on how to help my teammates.
Every last one of them [other opponents] said that ‘Jaylen and Jayson have to pass the ball. They don’t want to pass it. They will not pass it. Until they learn to pass it, this team can only go [so far].’ So, I’m thinking, ‘If that’s what they see, then this is what we got to do and then prove them wrong.’ People took it wrong because of the world we live in. Jaylen and Jayson are considered the superstars on the team. People look at me as just a role player. To have the audacity to call out those guys? That was funny to me. I didn’t call them out, but [the media and fans] took it that way and ran with it. To turn around and hear people say, ‘Maybe him calling them out is what turned the season around.’ Come on, man. People can’t make up their mind.
We have those talks all the time with me, Jaylen and Jayson. ‘This is what we have to do. This is what we need you to do.’ We’re constantly talking to each other. We’re listening and constantly encouraging and helping one another by sharing what we see differently in each of our games. If they see something, I tell them to let me know. If you see something different that we can exploit, let me know. We’ll go to it and we’ll figure out what we need to do. I think that’s helped us. We’ve been so transparent with each other to the point that we’re all on the same page. We’ve had these moments to grieve together about the [playoff] losses. We continue to love one another. We continue to hold each other accountable and also encourage each other when things go wrong.
You touched on Jayson and Jalen, but what else has accounted for the strong start?
Coming off of last [season], we expected to come in this year to be good. We didn’t expect to be at the top. But we expected to be in the mix at the top between one, two or three teams. We also expected to compete the way we are competing because coming off of last season’s Finals [loss], we had it. We just had to put things together. It started to click for us late during the season when we got it rolling. We figured it out and we wanted to keep it going. Coming into this [season], we understood the goal and we understood what we’re working for and trying to do. We’ve been going out there and putting it out on the line every night. We are right where we want it to be, but not where we expected to be right now.
What didn’t you expect?
How we’re doing it. Last season, we did it with our defense. This season, we’re doing it with our offense. Not only are we doing it with our offense, but we’re doing it at a highly efficient level. We have a game or two where we don’t match up. But for the most part, we’re like clockwork. We move the ball and we make each other better.
What lessons do you take from last season with both appearing and losing in the Finals?
It’s tough. We were below .500 midway through the season and then had to fight the rest of the way to the Finals. You don’t realize until afterwards how much it takes a wear and tear on you, especially when you’re going to seven games. We’re fighting in a seven-game series against Miami to make it to the Finals and the Warriors had a whole week off just resting and waiting on us. With that part, we don’t want to put ourselves in a hole this season and be in the doghouse early because it would be a dogfight to get out. That would just put more wear and tear on our bodies that we don’t need. We want to come out and take care of business early.
What have you done to improve your chances of good health this season?
I took literally the first two or three weeks off [after the Finals ended]. Then I was back training. I let my [right] ankle heal as much as I could for about five or six weeks. That was needed time. Then I dealt with my camps and all the charity work I do. It was a quick couple of months, and then it was right back to work. I didn’t have much time to rest. That’s part of it. When you go that long in the season, that’s what comes with it. That’s the risk and reward, but you’ll take that anytime.
Did your injury fully heal?
Nope. With my ankle, if I had to say percentage wise entering training camp, it was at 80-90%. It’s not 100%. When you aggravate it, the percentage is down more. But we’ve done a good job with not letting it get any worse than 88% or 85%. That is good. That’s all you can do. Injuries happen. You can’t control it. You just try to do everything to prevent it. I don’t think anybody in the NBA is 100% around this time, especially when you go into the playoffs that long and then coming right back. It’s impossible to fully heal.
How have you managed your injury day-to-day through the season?
The coaches understand that. They give us days off when we need it. We’re not practicing as hard. I’m constantly getting treatment. I’m constantly doing strength and therapy. You just have to stay consistent with it.
How do you and the staff decide when to push through the injuries and when to scale it back?
I know my body. I understand I’m on a team where we’re going to go deep in the playoffs. I’d rather go 100% then than now. I might have to take a game off here or may have to step out of practice. We go through a toll, especially me with the way I play. I get beat up a lot of nights. Being able to take those nights off helps.
The Warriors played really well in the Finals. But how much do you have a ‘what if’ feeling on how things may have played out if you were healthier?
We can all say it. They had players hurt, too. The big ‘what if’ is what if Robert Williams III didn’t get hurt? What if he didn’t have his knee stuff? If Rob is 100%, it’s a different story. If I was 100%, we’re probably talking a different story. But they had guys that were hurt, too. You play what is in front of you. That is what you can control. Nobody cares about you being hurt or not. If you step on that floor, you better be ready.
I read that you’ve become further obsessed with Steph Curry after the Finals loss. In what ways?
Just as a defender with all the ways that he challenges you, especially when you’re not healthy and you have an ankle injury. He’s going to challenge you because he moves so much. It was learning about how to play through more excruciating pain against a guy like Steph. How do you adjust when you’re not 100%? You still have to go out and play. Go out 100% if you can get there. If not, figure out how to play with giving him different looks, different coverages and different angles. Give him different shots to take where I can use my strength and size to match his speed.
When you trained in the offseason, what did you focus on specifically?
I was just trying to be efficient with everything I do with passing the ball and scoring the ball. I was focusing on getting into the paint and making the right reads and decisions. I also studied film on when to get myself involved and when to playmake for others. I was constantly studying where do guys like the ball, what we did great, what we didn’t do great and then finding those key places.
What conclusions did you make on when is the right time to playmake for others and when is the right time to look for your shot?
Normally, I get the team’s third to fifth best defender. Jayson and Jaylen are going to have the two top defenders guarding them. Nine times out of 10 when that defender is on me, that defender is a little bit shorter than me. It’s about using my size and my strength to my advantage, especially in the post. I’m very efficient out of the post. I think I’m hard to guard, especially because of my size and strength. Once I get it going in the post, I’m then either trying to find guys or score for myself. When I do that, defenders have to help. But they’re helping off of Jayson or Jaylen. They’re going to bring guys they shouldn’t have to bring. I’m working on getting those advantages for those guys and myself.
What did you make of some of the recent struggles?
When you’re the best team, everyone wants to see you go down. We’re going to get everybody’s best game. They’re going to do things they weren’t doing before we played them. You just tip your hat, watch the film and move on. It’s early. It’s not much of a concern.
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla praised you for how you’ve been poised with the group through both good and bad games. How do you do that?
Try to stay positive. When everything is getting out of control, the last thing they need to see is their point guard losing that focus and panic. I try to stay positive so the guys can see that. If Marcus, the heart and soul and emotional leader, is OK, then we should be all right.
Health aside, what else will determine whether you all can win the NBA title this season?
You have to be healthy. But we have to continue to get better every day. That’s in every aspect from communicating with one another on the floor, executing down the stretch as well as executing on plays both offensively and defensively. We understand we’re a good team and are the hunted. People are going to come for us and we’ll get everybody’s game. We can’t be surprised. We have to play every game as hard as we can because every team will be matching up with us.
How did you internalize everything when the Celtics suspended Ime Udoka and then Joe took over head-coaching duties?
We told ourselves that we’re going to focus on what we can control. We’re going to let everybody else handle the outside noise for us. We’re focused on what’s on here. Nobody is going to have empathy or sympathy for us. You have a job to do, so you go do it.
What’s jumped out to you with how Joe has managed everything?
Just how effortlessly he has done it. Joe has been here for a very long time. He knows the Xs and Os. He’s played [collegiately]. Especially at the point guard position, he knows what it takes to win. He’s a competitor himself. He came in and was being himself. He was not trying to do too much. He was not trying to take power and be a dictator. He’s allowed us to grow as young men and as basketball players.
How has Joe shown that?
For example, I had four fouls [against the Lakers] and he kept me in the game. If he wants you to be in the game, he’s going to trust you. He’s constantly told us, ‘I’m going to trust you. So if you say, ‘Leave me in,’ I’m going to leave you in. Even in our loss to the Clippers, the game was probably over for us with five minutes left in the game. But we wanted to stay in so we could get in a rhythm for the next game. He said, ‘OK.’ That’s the trust he has in us.
You downplayed any hopes of becoming an All-Star, but where do you put defending the DPOY award and making the NBA All-Defensive 1st team again as an individual goal?
I would love to get it again. I’m not sure that would happen. It took 20-30 years to get a guard to win. I don’t see it happening anytime soon. But First-Team All-Defense, I can definitely see it happening again. I’m one of the better defenders in this league. I’ve been that way for a very long time. First-team defense is something I definitely should be a part of in the discussion every year. The All-Star thing is a bonus. It would be great. It would be great to have all three of us as All-Stars [Tatum, Brown, Smart]. But I’m playing for something so much bigger than that.
How do you approach defense with all the different positions you guard?
You got to think. Your mind is constantly being pulled in different directions. You go from guarding one guy that’s 5-foot-10 toward guarding somebody that’s 6-8. You have to change up how you guard. You have to change up your physicality and things like that. You have to know your advantages and disadvantages.
What are those things?
Physically, you might have to change up things. Defending a guard, nine times out of 10 I’m usually taller and stronger. They’re usually faster than me. With guarding a bigger guy, I probably have the speed and quickness compared to them. You definitely have to change it up. You have to know how much you can get into them. If they’re bringing the ball up, are they somebody that you want to put pressure on?
Do you change your approach on a star player?
Not at all. I respect everybody in this league. Everybody is an NBA player. Everybody understands how to play the game. You don’t want to disrespect anybody in this league. You want to continue to get that respect. It doesn’t matter if you’re a star player, role player or somebody that hasn’t played in a while. When they get in the game, you have to be aware of them. Anyone can get hot.
What did you all do defensively to compensate when Robert Williams III was out?
We relied on our guards a little bit more with helping each other. We didn’t have the tower and rim threat in Rob like we used to, so we have to be more conservative as guards on when we can gamble. If we do gamble, we have to make sure another guard is there to help because of that lack of rim protection from Rob. We defended in different ways. We’re taking charges. We upped our aggressiveness. We tried to be a pest with guarding the ball without taking ourselves out of place.
Overall, how would you assess everything you’ve done defensively?
I’m nowhere near [my expectations]. That attributes to me playing different positions. I’m guarding 4s and 5s every game that have about five to six more inches on me. It’s tough. These are different assignments than I’m used to. I have to switch it up now. I have to play it differently. It took a toll. But as we continue to progress, I’m starting to get back to who I was defensively.
You received the NBA Cares Community Assist Award for your efforts with your foundation and visiting children at hospitals. What do you share with them about your circumstances with losing family members from cancer?
I have been affected and have sat in the hospitals. When I see patients and their families going through what I went through with my family, it just brings back memories. I remember when I felt like I didn’t have anybody to talk to and how to deal with it and to help me cope with it. I wanted to be that helping hand for others. I understood what was hurting. Sometimes, you just need somebody to let you know and hope that everything is going to be all right even though you know it probably might not be.
How do you internalize those moments?
It’s heartbreaking. It’s warming. We’re competitors and we’re tough on the court. But when you do something nice like that off the court? You’re helping others. You’re seeing the smile and the happiness that it’s bringing. It definitely touches you in a place you didn’t know as a competitor that you had. There’s a gentle side. It feels good to be able to give back and see the smile and happiness you bring to people just with granting a little bit of your time. Whether it’s 10, 15 or 30 minutes, they appreciate it so much more than you know. That’s all it is for me, knowing for that day and moment that I can take the pain away by showing up.
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