Celtics coach Ime Udoka was sitting at a podium on the sixth floor of the Auerbach Center Thursday when he was asked about the importance of guard Marcus Smart, who missed Game 2 of the conference semifinals against the Bucks because of a quadriceps contusion.
“We don’t even need Marcus, honestly,” Udoka said, trying to keep a straight face under his mask.
Then he smiled and gestured to the back of the room, where Smart was waiting for his chance to speak.
“He’s back there laughing a little bit,” Udoka said. “But no, of course. I talked about it before last game, the impact he has on us in setting the tone on a night-to-night basis. And so one thing we have had unfortunately the experience of this year is guys being in and out of the lineup. And so other guys have had to step up.”
Minutes later, Smart said there is a “strong likelihood” that he will return for Game 3 Saturday in Milwaukee.
“We’re just dealing with the last part of it, and that’s getting that restriction off the knee and the joint,” Smart said. “So I feel once that goes away, I should be back to myself, because everything else is healing up the right way and that’s the last part, so just got to deal with it.”
Smart was hurt after taking several hits to the quad area during the Celtics’ Game 1 loss. He said the team has taken extra precautions because the injury is in the same spot as the one that caused him to miss six games in January.
He said the swelling has restricted his movement because the point of impact was close to his knee, but added that an MRI showed no structural damage.
“What’s keeping me back is that fluid in the knee that’s restricting that movement to really bend down as much as I need to, especially to be able to get into a defensive stance and to be able to push off,” Smart said.
“It’s kind of hard to be able to go out there and play if you can’t do that, so once we can get the fluid off of it, everything else will be all right.”
Last month Smart was named NBA Defensive Player of the Year, the first guard to win the award since 1996. His game is built on a physical, relentless style of play that leads to bumps, bruises, and floor burns, even on normal nights.
But when he comes back, he said, there will be no hesitation about resuming that approach.
“If I’m out there, I should be able to do the things I was doing, or I shouldn’t be out there,” Smart said. “When I come back, I’m coming back to be me, and that’s all I can really say about that.
“And if I’m not out there, it’s because I didn’t feel like I was 100 percent to be out there and do the things I need to be doing.”
Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens said Thursday during his weekly appearance on 98.5 The Sports Hub that he was hopeful Smart would be able to return Saturday. Udoka said the team will have a better gauge of Smart’s situation Friday, but added that he has shown obvious improvement over the last few days.
“I don’t think he’s restricted in every movement, some side-to-side, going through getting shots up and all that,” Udoka said. “But it looks like it more if you really try to get out and go and sprint and certain actions like that might be more restricted than any other typical basketball movement. So he’s doing more on the court today than he did yesterday.”
The Celtics were able to overcome Smart’s absence in Game 2, when they provided further evidence that their top-ranked defense is built around more than one player and roared to a 109-86 win that tied the series.
“I’m just proud of the way the guys responded,” Smart said, “and I’m glad that everybody had a helping hand in that.”