SAN FRANCISCO — There he was, Marcus Smart, in the middle of another controversy, exchanging words with historically mild-mannered Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who was pleading for Smart to understand that crashing the floor for a loose ball and sliding into his megastar guard was a “dangerous play.”
The Celtics guard dived for a loose ball in the second quarter Wednesday night while Stephen Curry bent down for it, causing the contact. Curry had to leave with a left foot injury, limping slightly and writhing in pain. He has a left foot sprain and is expected to be out until the playoffs, according to multiple reports.
Kerr’s sensitivity is understandable. Curry’s physical Achilles’ heels in his career have been his feet and ankles. He has had multiple procedures on his ankles. And he missed a portion of the 2019-20 season with a fractured hand after a collision with Phoenix center Aron Baynes.
The Warriors’ only chance of returning to the NBA Finals is good health, and they have dealt with injury issues all season. Curry has been mainly healthy, but Draymond Green just returned from a 31-game absence with back issues and Klay Thompson returned in January after missing two years with a torn Achilles’ tendon and anterior cruciate ligament.
“I thought Marcus dove into Steph’s knee, and that’s what I was upset about,” said Kerr. “A lot of respect for Marcus. He’s a hell of a player, gamer, competitor. I coached him in the World Cup a few summers ago.
“We talked after the game. We’re good, but I thought it was a dangerous play. I just let him know.”
Interactions between a player and an opposing coach are common in the NBA, but they aren’t usually this contentious, and Smart again felt obligated to defend his actions.
Everybody wants Marcus Smart on their team. Very few truly enjoy playing against him. He’s a rugged fullback in a point guard’s body, someone who, unlike many of his NBA brethren, is willing to sacrifice his body for a second-quarter loose ball.
He acknowledged last month that he still has shrapnel in his hand from the infamous glass-breaking incident in his Los Angeles hotel room in 2018, and he carries into every game various pains, bruises, and muscle pulls from his fearless play.
“He’s doing what any coach, any player, any person would do, and that’s backing up their guy,” Smart said of Kerr. “We talked it out. In that conversation, he told me, ‘You’re one of the guys I wish I had on my team.’
“Me and Steve have that relationship with USA Basketball. He knows I’m never trying to hurt anybody. He knows I got in this league by sacrificing my body for the betterment of my team. I get it. I understand.
“I hate to see [injuries] happen to anybody, especially doing your job. I hope Steph’s all right. I’m really down right now about it.”
Smart is not a dirty player. He’s a player who plays extremely hard and tests limits. He doesn’t have the natural talent or skill set to rely on scoring. He has stayed on the floor through his first seven-plus years because of his defense, and this season his floor leadership and ability to run the offense have been among the biggest reasons for the Celtics’ success.
“I’ve been doing this since I first came into the league,” Smart said. “Not only that, we’ve seen guys like Draymond do that.
“My teammates and colleagues know I’m not a dirty player. I’m going to go out there and leave everything I have on the floor for my team and I’m going to hustle.
“Unfortunately, when you’re doing that, things happen in basketball. I’m sure I’m going to get called dirty. That’s their opinion. I play very hard and I leave my life on the court.”
Green, a former Defensive Player of the Year who plays a style similar to Smart’s, refused to admonish Smart for the Curry incident. Green has been an NBA bad guy for years, and there remains a perception that his flagrant foul against LeBron James in Game 4 of the 2016 NBA Finals changed the course of the series. Green was suspended for Game 5, and the Cavaliers snatched the final three games of the series.
“I would expect Marcus Smart to make that play,” Green said. “He plays hard. I can’t call that a dirty play, as unfortunate as it is. If it was a dirty play, I would have went and dove into his head.
“I had a great look on the play. I was right on top. Maybe unnecessary, but that is the most that I can call it. Unnecessary. I can’t call it a dirty play. The ball is on the floor, and at every level of basketball, we are taught to dive on the floor and go after the ball.”
Was it unnecessary? Did Smart have to dive on the floor for a second-quarter loose ball that may not have made any difference in the outcome of the game?
For Smart, every loose ball is worth diving for. This is how he feeds his family, by playing hard, by risking injury and even long-term debilitation for the sake of that loose ball.
This is who Marcus Smart is, and this is why he’s an indispensable part of the Celtics.