The team has been in a bit of a funk after a brutal January schedule. The homestand started with a blowout at the hands of the Clippers, followed by a come-from-behind victory against the Pelicans, a gut check win over the Pacers, and a deflating loss to the Lakers without LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
And while Joe Mazzulla and the players to a man have all said some version of “everybody has a bad day at work” to “this happens in an 82-game season,” it’s hard not to think how Marcus Smart would be dealing with this slump if he was still in green.
Smart won’t suit up tonight in his homecoming after being dealt to Memphis this summer for Kristaps Porzingis in a three-team trade. There will surely be a tribute video after he was drafted by Boston and spent nine seasons in his adopted city. It’ll feature his endless hustle, heroic feats of daredevil defense, the countless winning plays, the baiting of James Harden into two offensive fouls, how he carried the Celtics in Game 6 against the 76ers last year, and his service to the community that he loved so much and loved him back.
Time does heal all wounds and nearly eight months removed from the deal, that #36-sized hole in my heart has mostly scarred up nicely. A good cry after PA announcer Eddie Palladino welcomes him back and Smart rises to his feet and waves to the TD Garden faithful will add some closure, too.
However, distance does make the heart grow fonder. I’m already counting the days that Smart somehow returns to Boston and finishes out his career here. It sometimes even feels criminal that he’s not part of this team anymore. He was the first brick.
It’s hard to argue that the trade wasn’t a success. Since Smart’s departure, the Celtics have been the league’s best team at 37-12 with a top-3 offense and defense. But after nearly a decade of Smart, it’s also not hard to think about what his presence would be on this team now.
He'd probably rank near Al Horford in the pecking order as an important cog of the rotation, but most likely not a starter. To Horford's credit, he's embraced the role as a steady veteran off the bench and that even-keeled temperament has proved to be valuable during this 82-game journey with a championship in mind. But that wouldn’t be Smart’s jam. Even though he mellowed out in his final two seasons with the Celtics, he always played with a dangerous passion (passion for danger, perhaps) for the game. For better or worse, I miss that. It gave every game, especially at the Garden, a little extra juice.
At the time of the trade, Smart was the longest tenured Celtic that bridged the gap between the Brad Stevens era to today. More importantly, he served as a mentor to Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Many veterans, particularly at Smart's position, came through Boston, but it wasn't until Smart became the starting point guard did the team really peak in the postseason with a trip to the Finals in 2022. That was seven years in the making.
Of late, Mazzulla has talked about a sense of “entitlement” with this team as they deal with some boredom at Game #50. This isn’t to suggest that Smart wasn’t susceptible to the mid-season listlessness, too. However, he never seemed to take winning for granted. He waited a long time to get his chance in Boston and he ran with it. Unfortunately, that opportunity won’t materialize for him this year in Memphis either. But hopefully seeing Smart tonight will help shake his former team out of their funk and serve as a reminder that these moments are not only rare, but can be taken away from you instantly.