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The education of Marcus Smart

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After a west coast road trip where Marcus Smart completed hustle play after hustle play but was also the target for criticism about his flopping, he came back to the Garden and helped the Celtics focus on defense.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

I'd hate Marcus Smart if he wasn't a Celtic. He's up in your grill on defense, chewing your bubble gum, and if you make a mistake, he'll make you pay. It may be a steal or an unforced error or even worse--an offensive foul from a phantom elbow or questionable charge. When he's got the ball in his hands, he acts like his middle linebacker body is made out of porcelain, with every slightest bump accentuated to draw a foul. He's a roughhouser who relishes contact but annoyingly plays for the whistle. That's got to be maddening for opposing players, but, frankly, it's getting a little maddening as a fan.

Regarding his reputation, Smart said a few days ago, "I hope I get stereotyped as a hard-nosed player. That's who I am. I play hard." But he added that in terms of developing a reputation as a flopper, "not at all. I'm gonna play my game and play hard every day." That all sounds well and good, but there's a little bit of a disconnect with Smart's sentiments. Nobody is arguing that he doesn't play hard. There have been times when I've thought he's played too hard. Smart broke his fingers in summer league--SUMMER LEAGUE!--diving for a loose ball. He's jumped in front of players trying to draw an offensive foul when maybe discretion should have gotten the better of valor. He's already missed 36 games not even two seasons into his career because of his sometimes wreckless play, but that's Marcus Smart.

Refs can appreciate tough guys like him. I think they give some leeway to Jae Crowder when he muscles up opposing 3s and 4s because Crowder is honest with his work. He may try to sell the occasional bump or hand check on a drive, but for the most part, Crowder plays the game the right way. The same applies to Avery Bradley. They're just two hard-nosed guys that approach the game with modesty. There's no doubt that Smart has the same fire as his teammates, but he has to be a little concerned that he's also viewed as a flopper.

Flopping isn't necessarily a death knell if Smart wants to be a star. Lots of stars flop, but I can't think of a young player coming up through the NBA with that kind of rep from Day 1 and succeeding. At Oklahoma State he was considered a flopper, and through his sophomore season with the Celtics, he hasn't changed his approach. However, it's hard to argue that the approach isn't working. Smart leads the team in steals per game and is one of the biggest reasons the Celtics are 1st in opponents' turnovers and fouls drawn.

But there's a rub. Some players might see it as gamesmanship, but NBA refs aren't as forgiving. They're not a sequestered jury that only see the light of day to officiate a basketball game. CSNNE's Mike Felger makes the point that refs have a memory, and in future games, Smart's reputation could catch up with him, especially after laying out from a phantom elbow from Zach LaVine. A. Sherrod Blakely talked to an NBA ref who said that officiating Smart is difficult because he plays hard but when you mix in the flops, he's apt to not to give him the call. When you start not getting the benefit of the doubt in a game, that can exponentially snowball over the course of a season and maybe beyond.

This is the age where not only is perception reality, but reality is reality, and it gets repeated on social media Vine after Vine after Vine. Your reputation can get played out on viral videos, and it quickly becomes the narrative to your career. Suddenly, your antics make headlines over your actions, and you have a week like Marcus Smart is having now. For the last few days, Smart's play (and acting) have taken center stage (pun intended) while the team is back in Boston after a disappointing 1-2 road trip.

Smart isn't the reason why the Celtics got blown out in Utah or lost against the Timberwolves (even though he missed an open Isaiah Thomas and the final shot to win the game), but both games were indicative of the good and the bad you get from Marcus Smart. You get the hustle plays like his tipped ball to Evan Turner and the cobra steal in Minnesota. Smart had ten steals over that three-game stretch, but he also finished each of those games with five fouls. He's an aggressive player, and we've come to expect his energy on both ends of the floor. I'm not too concerned with the fouls, but sometimes, there's much to be desired with how he reacts to a whistle.

This is just speculation on my part, but I think the flopping and officiating chatter got to Marcus. Last night, he just seemed so much calmer and focused. Here's a GIF of how he reacted to his four fouls:

Smart's stat line was unimpressive and probably his worst since returning from injury, but he played pretty much without incident. I thought he was solid on defense and aggressively driving the ball to the rim. You're not going to get too much of a highlight film after putting up 3 points, 1 rebound, and 1 assist, but defensively, he was a rock.

He was making all the right rotations, sticking to guys without reaching, and, most importantly, refraining from chirping quite as much to the other players or refs. He put aside the histrionics against the Bucks, and just shut up and played the game. There were no "wow" moments or anything that would lead you to believe that Marcus Smart will be a star someday, just the blue collar approach that won't show up in the box score. But for now, that might be what's best for MS.

There was a moment in the Denver game after Smart was whistled for a technical foul when the Nuggets' telecast caught Brad Stevens yelling "grow up!" (h/t MassLive's Jay King) It was unclear if he was directing his frustration towards Smart or the young official who T'd him up. If it was indeed intended for Marcus, I think it might be working. Smart's going to be a very good player in this league. Stevens has consistently said that he makes winning plays and always has an effect on the game, but he can be a little demonstrative at times. The NBA wants its players to succeed and has even cultivated its rules to foster a star system, but we're not talking about WWE Raw here. Smart can leave the eye-rolling and flexing and Oscar nonsense in the ring and just play the game the right way.