In the middle of the Celtics’ collapse last night in Charlotte, they were nursing a four-point lead with just under three minutes to go. Marcus Smart had just rimmed out a wide open, corner three and Kemba Walker followed up Smart’s miss with a three of his own. On the ensuing possession, Smart tried to stop the bleeding from the Hornets on a 17-3 run and take advantage of his match up against a smaller Devonte’ Graham.
Smart bully balled to the rim on a drive and his right elbow caught Graham in the chest. It was a chicken wing, but Graham sold it well. To his credit, just like Marcus would. Offensive foul on Smart. Turnover. Walking up the court, Smart flipped the ball high over his head in disgust, flirting with disaster and a technical foul.
After a Hornets’ turnover, Smart again tried to take advantage of Graham, this time posting up deep in the paint. His forearm caught Graham in the restricted area and Graham fell to the floor. Offensive foul on Smart. Turnover. Brad Stevens recognized the dejected look on Smart’s face and substituted him for Terry Rozier. After publicly defending Smart after he got ejected in Philadelphia and talking about just how important he was on the floor at the end of games, he pulled him.
Twenty-four hours prior, Stevens wouldn’t get into the specifics of his conversation with Smart, but he did offer some insight into what they talked about. “The gist of it is, we are all responsible to our team. Ultimately, one of the best abilities is availability and he knows how important he is. At the end of the day, that’s a big deal. He is a tough guy. He’s a competitive guy. That’s one of the reasons why we need him late because that’s something that I think he brings, a contagiousness about him.” With the game in the balance, Smart wouldn’t play another second in Charlotte.
USA Today’s Jeremy Brevard caught the moment perfectly. It’s a picture that speaks a thousand words, a portrait of a man who has lost his way on this road trip. Over the last two games, Smart has been tilting at windmills and putting his pride over team. Even though Wednesday’s outburst in Philly seemed directed at Joel Embiid, it was really an indirect protest against the officiating.
Two days after his ejection and a subsequent $50,000 fine, Smart spoke about his frustrations. Surprisingly, it had little to do with Embiid or what Embiid did. It was a matter of fairness. “Unfortunately, it’s hard as a defender in this league to play defense unfortunately. You can’t touch anybody. When you do, it’s a call on you,” a cool-headed Smart said. “The offensive player can create so much contact on the defender and the defender can’t even protect himself. So, it’s hard.”
After pleading his case about the specifics of the play--Embiid’s elbow, the illegal screen, the ref swallowing his whistle--Smart made it personal. “It’s hard, because now, you’re send a message to a guy pretty much telling him, ‘you can’t protect yourself. You’re supposed to just take that and allow it.’ Unfortunately, I’m sorry. I just wasn’t raised that way. I always got to protect myself at all times.”
Smart doubled down, “I’d do it all over again. I’m going to protect myself at all times, especially if I’m feeling like I’m not being protected out there like everybody else is. If you don’t want to clean it up, I’ll clean it up myself.”
This has been a blip on what’s otherwise been a breakout season for Marcus. After spending much of last summer in restricted free agency limbo, he was rewarded with a four-year, $52M contract. The Celtics have always appreciated the intangibles he brings to the game and realized it with a long-term deal. So far, it’s paid dividends. Smart has elevated his game (re: shooting) and been promoted as a starter. Unfortunately, his reputation can often precede him on the court.
“I’m probably held on a different scale than anybody else. I seen a couple nights before Russell Westbrook do the exact same thing and he got hit with a flagrant 1 and I got ejected,” Smart said. “It’s definitely just different types of people being held to different platforms and higher pedestals than others which is understandable. Unfortunately, I’m lower on the totem pole.”
Fast forward to last night and the roles were reversed. On two trips down the court, it was Smart on offense against the smaller defender and instead of getting the benefit of the doubt and more so, the respect as a veteran, he was whistled for two offensive fouls. For Smart, it must feel like a no-win situation. His vigilante justice against the 76ers cost him $50K and a softer, kinder Smart, in part, cost the Celtics a game in Charlotte.