MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Sometime last season, Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon gazed down at their Jenga game, unsure of how to proceed. In the contest that requires sliding out blocks without crashing down the rest of a tower, one of the pieces was stuck. White said all the players were hesitant. They were afraid of knocking over the rest of the pieces while trying to pull out the one stubborn block.
Then Marcus Smart stepped in. White said his former teammate walked over without a single worry and smacked the block out of its place. The one piece flew out. The rest of the tower stayed intact.
“That’s just Marcus Smart,” White said, recalling the story Sunday morning at FedEx Forum before topping the Memphis Grizzlies 102-100.
White said Smart called himself the best Jenga player ever. Then again, White said, Smart considered himself unmatched in all sorts of ways. He would sometimes juggle three balls with one hand. He would do flips on the basketball court just for fun. In trading Smart as part of a three-team June deal that landed Kristaps Porziņģis, the Boston Celtics moved one of the NBA’s boldest competitors. He had far more important victories than that Jenga maneuver across nine seasons in Boston but racked them all up with the same mindset he showed that day. Over time, his constant feeling of invincibility rubbed off on White.
“One thing I took from Smart is just his confidence in everything he does,” White said. “Like, he’s the best at everything. And you can’t tell him any differently. That’s just something I picked up from him. And that’s a big (help) in a lot of things.”
If the Celtics hadn’t quickly proved their new formula works, the matchup against Smart’s Grizzlies would have prompted questions about their approach to team building over the summer. But Boston’s dominant start has left no room for regrets. Porziņģis and Jrue Holiday have complemented the rest of Boston’s best players well from the start. Through 13 games, the Celtics’ new first unit has been the NBA’s best high-usage lineup by net rating and one of the driving forces behind the team’s league-best 11-2 record. As such, the visit to Smart’s new locale brought up good memories and nothing more.
Well, maybe a little more.
“I couldn’t stand Marcus at first,” Jaylen Brown said, laughing at his early impressions of his friend.
Brown said he and Smart once clashed for “a plethora of reasons.” But that was before they played seven seasons together. Before they reached the conference finals together five times and the finals once. Before they went through enough together, including personal tragedies and triumphs, to see they were more alike than Brown realized at first. Eventually, Brown said, he learned to love Smart and see Smart as a “great person.”
“Over time I realized that me and Marcus have similar spirits,” Brown said. “And if I was going to war with anybody, Marcus would be one of my first phone calls.”
The Celtics didn’t get the chance to compete against Smart on Sunday. An ankle injury, expected to sideline him for weeks, forced him to watch the game from the Grizzlies bench. In a striped shirt and a walking boot, Smart barked out defensive instructions to his Memphis teammates. When one of the Grizzlies players strayed too far from Al Horford in the corner, Smart motioned for him to slide back over to the Boston big man. And when Memphis overhelped on one Jayson Tatum drive, Smart turned toward the players near him on the bench and appeared to go over what the team should have done on the possession. Even while injured, Smart was one of the more vocal Grizzlies players. As he showed throughout his Boston tenure, he can always be expected to provide a loud voice in the locker room and on the court. The lessons he has stressed to Memphis, which is going through a cursed start to the season, show how much he has matured from his time as a combustible youngster early in his Celtics days.
We got a reunion in Memphis!
Miss seeing all these guys together pic.twitter.com/8VP2NpWa0x
— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) November 20, 2023
“Obviously, the struggles that we’re having, he just has an even keel about him,” Taylor Jenkins said. “He knows what we’ve gotta do every single day in preparation-wise. He’s keeping the guys focused on the big picture, which is sometimes hard, especially early in the season when we’ve got a competitive group. But the competitiveness that he’s displayed for so many years, I think he’s really led by example in that department to keep our guys just focused on, hey, put the record aside, just keep focusing on the group that we’ve got, the standard that we’ve gotta lean into. Everyone’s responsibility, him getting acclimated to our standard, he’s been really positive and consistent.”
Smart has averaged 12.5 points and 5.0 assists per game over his first 11 appearances for Memphis. But with injuries to several key players, including Smart, and with Ja Morant suspended for the first 25 games of the season, the Grizzlies have stumbled to a 3-10 record. In a sign of the gap that exists between Boston and Memphis, the Celtics sounded disappointed even after escaping with the road win. In a hectic closing sequence, Tatum passed to Jrue Holiday for a dunk attempt when Boston could have held on to the ball and gotten fouled to add to a 2-point lead. Holiday’s slam bounced off the back rim, giving the Grizzlies a transition opportunity in the final seconds. Memphis produced two chances out of it, but Santi Aldama missed a go-ahead 3-point attempt before Porziņģis blocked Zaire Williams at the buzzer.
“Sometimes you’re OK with a loss because you did the right things and sometimes you’re pissed because you didn’t deserve to win,” Joe Mazzulla said. “I didn’t think we deserved to win the game because of a lot of the stuff that we did. And so at the end of the game you have to make the layup or get fouled. That’s just how it is. You either make it or you dribble the clock out and make your free throws and the game’s over. Credit to the Grizzlies for the way they played. I thought they just outplayed us at times.”
Porziņģis seemed to agree with his coach’s assessment.
“I don’t think we were taking them lightly,” Porziņģis said. “I think we were just, um, maybe a little bit of a lack of focus in some situations. They played hard. They played really hard. And they came to win. I think it was just a bit of discipline, a little bit, you know, maybe we have that feeling that we’re going to win anyway, you know? A little bit of that feeling is creeping up and we have to stay even sharper in those situations, in those kind of games. So it could be that.”
Even if the Celtics are beginning to deal with some complacency, as Porziņģis suggested, they have put together a six-game winning streak and look like one of the championship favorites. That doesn’t mean they have totally left Smart’s impact behind them. Brown recently said his former teammate’s imprint remains.
“A lot of what we’ve built here, being able to win, being able to get to multiple conference finals, being able to establish an identity in basketball, a lot of that is Marcus,” Brown said. “Him diving on the floor for loose balls, hustling, and being a game-changer is what he kind of does and how he’s made a name for himself. He’s a large contributor into why we’ve had success. He’s no longer with us, but we’ve got to give credit where credit is due.”
The Boston players love their old teammate. Tatum said it’s still weird to flip on Grizzlies games and see Smart wearing a different jersey. During Smart’s time in Boston, he was often the loudest player around. He was the life of practices, the constant communicator on defense, the vocal leader in a lot of ways. He left behind a void the other players have needed to fill.
“It’s been fun,” Brown said. “Leadership is not something that is unfamiliar to me. Being able to be looked towards to be the voice for our team, to lead our team out each and every night is something I get excited about. I’ve been waiting to be in that position. So, same thing with Jayson. Jayson is not the most vocal person, but even now it’s pushing him to (take) more of a leadership role. So I think it’s just great for our personal development. But that’s no slight to Marcus or anybody else. We were great. We won a lot of games while we were here. And we didn’t win a ring, but we still celebrate the success that we had.”
The Celtics had plenty of success with Smart, who never missed the playoffs in Boston, but seem to love their new roster, too. They love it enough that they don’t want to accept subpar efforts like the one they put forth in Memphis.
“I still think it’s a good thing,” Mazzulla said. “I still think you have to go through stuff. I can’t have the expectation of perfection that we’re always going to play well. That’s just not reality; there’s 82 of these things. It doesn’t mean I’m happy. Like, I’m not happy about it. I was happy with the way the game went against Toronto, and tonight I’m not happy about it. But I understand that it’s going to happen and that’s just building basketball character.
“It’s easy to lump the group of guys we have back like, ‘They’ve been around.’ But every team needs to learn different things and go through different stuff. It’s easy to say you want to be a certain team and then it just gets harder and harder to live that way. So the standard is very high for us. The guys in the locker room set a high standard for themselves and you’re not always gonna meet it. So I understand why a game is gonna go like this. It’s not gonna be the only time. But I don’t have to be happy about it.”
(Photo of Kristaps Porziņģis and Zaire Williams: Photo by Justin Ford / Getty Images)