Celtics Exit Interviews: Marcus Smart was everything the 2018-19 Celtics weren't

Chris Forsberg
NBC Sports Boston

Celtics Exit Interviews: Marcus Smart was everything the 2018-19 Celtics weren't originally appeared on nbcsportsboston.com

Allow Aron Baynes to explain why Marcus Smart is such a pest on the defensive end of the floor.

"He makes people uncomfortable," said Baynes. "At the end of the day, [defenders are] trying to do what you can to make every shot tough but he wears on people. And it's not just in that moment that he's on the ball. It might be at the end of the game, they come down, they don't have quite as much legs as they had at the beginning of the game. He's worn on them the entire time. The cumulative effect of Marcus' pressure over 48 minutes, it's going to deteriorate anyone's offense.

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"It's great being able to have a guy like that on your team."

Late this season, Smart had suggested that Baynes was as important to Boston's defense as any player on the roster. This drew an audible grunt from Baynes - one of those booming All-of-Australia scoffs that left the big man ranting about why Smart is the team's defensive conscience and why he deserved a spot on the All-Defense team.

Smart earned the long-overdue honor Wednesday when the NBA announced he was the top vote-getting guard, earning a spot on the All-Defense first team. Smart finished behind only Rudy Gobert, Paul George, and Giannis Antetokounmpo in media voting while earning 63 first-team and 19 second-team votes. 

This might not have even been the best defensive season of Smart's career, but the reputation he's built as one of the league's top defensive bulldogs finally reached voters. Smart was on full display after elevating to a starting role in November and he spent the rest of the season playing alongside Kyrie Irving and hounding the opposing team's best offensive weapon.

By March, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was publicly stumping for Smart.

"I'm sure if you took a poll of players around the league - even though they might be annoyed by him sometimes - they would all say that he is [one of the top defenders]," said Stevens. "Because he's into people, he's physical, he's tough, he's got a motor, he's got great hands. He should be on that team."

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It's somewhat ironic that, in maybe his biggest season of offensive growth, Smart is finally being lauded for his defensive abilities.

Still, in a season in which little made sense about these Celtics, Smart was one of the few players to consistently bring a passion and desire that Boston fans so dearly yearned to see.

Smart's shooting splits this season - 42.2 percent overall, 36.4% beyond the 3-point arc - weren't just career highs but a jarring leap over his career numbers (36 FG%, 29.3 3PT%). On a team brimming with offensive potential, Smart sacrificed his own offensive chances and embraced being a creator, even as his teammates failed to show the same growth he did. 

Smart took great pride in emerging as a two-way threat, dispelling a reputation as a player who could only impact the game on the defensive end. Smart was still a defensive menace and his steal percentage (3.1) was the best in the NBA (he was third overall in total swipes). 

Smart ranked eighth among all point guards in ESPN's Defensive Real Plus/Minus and that felt criminally low (though he lingered in the same neighborhood as fellow All-Defense guards Patrick Beverly and Jrue Holiday).

Smart played a career-high 80 games only to suffer an oblique injury in the penultimate game of the regular season and missed seven of Boston's nine playoff tilts. His return wasn't enough to get the team on track as the Bucks raced away in the Eastern Conference semis.

Alas, you'd be nitpicking to point out ways Smart could have been better this season. He embodied everything that Celtics fans wanted from the rest of the roster - a player that yearned only to win and made the sacrifices necessary in hopes of bringing out the best in his teammates.

It's why, after Wednesday's All-Defense announcement, Smart took to Twitter to express appreciation for the honor but also noted, "I want a banner though," and added, "Offseason is a myth. Let's get it."

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Stevens isn't big on captains - believing that players throughout the roster should feel empowered - but, man, Smart continues to make a compelling case for the honor with the way he carries himself on and off the court. Even in simply going to bat for Irving after the season, Smart continually showed the markings of a true leader.

Mind you, all this came a season after he inked a four-year, $52 million extension. While most players throttle down after getting their first big deal, Smart ramped up. And he was playing in the emotional aftermath of losing his mother to cancer last summer.

Smart might just be moving towards untouchable status because of what he brings to the Celtics. That's particularly notable as we enter a summer in which Boston might need to use Smart's contract in order to make money match in the pursuit of Anthony Davis.

That's a bullet the Celtics almost certainly don't want to bite and will explore all other avenues to avoid such an occurrence on the chance that a Davis deal could become a reality. It won't be easy, but Smart is worth the headaches of exploring the three-team, sign-and-trade options or other front-office witchcraft that might be necessary to avoid putting him in a package.

But that sorta underscores the Marcus Smart experience. Here's a player that's been routinely criticized throughout his career and Celtics fans might legitimately riot if he was moved for one of the best players on the planet.

Smart's intangibles are just that valuable. And, if the All-Defense honor is any indication, the rest of the league might just be catching on to just how important Smart is here.

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