MEMPHIS — It wasn’t the comeback game Marcus Smart envisioned or even a comeback game at all because he was unable to play Sunday night.
The former Celtic knew he wouldn’t face his former team Sunday when he sprained his left foot in Memphis’s loss to the Lakers on Tuesday. There would be no opportunity to show his old organization what they’ve been missing or display perhaps an improved wrinkle in his game.
Smart greeted his former teammates at FedEx Forum dressed in street clothes and a boot on his injured foot. Smart was doing Smart things, arguing calls on the end of the bench, yelling at official James Williams for a quick conference during a timeout, encouraging teammates.
The NBA can be an unfair league. While the Celtics are racing to the league’s best record at 11-2, the Grizzlies have been one of the league’s biggest disappointments. Shorthanded Memphis pushed the Celtics to the brink before a Kristaps Porzingis block of a Ziaire Williams jumper secured a 102-100 win.
The Grizzlies entered this season with championship hopes but are tied for last in the Western Conference with a 3-10 record. They are a shell of themselves because of injuries. And while the effort was there Sunday, the results remained the same.
Superstar guard Ja Morant is in the middle of a 25-game suspension for a repeated offense of brandishing a gun on social media. Steven Adams is out for the season following knee surgery. Brandon Clarke still hasn’t returned from his Achilles’ tear, and Smart’s injury has helped turn the Grizzlies into a punching bag in the treacherous West.
The Celtics are a better team than last year and the lingering question is whether Smart’s absence has something to do with the improvement. His trade to the Grizzlies was a controversial and unpopular deal before president of basketball operations Brad Stevens acquired Jrue Holiday just days before training camp in a blockbuster.
Now, since Holiday has settled and the Celtics have found a groove with him and Porzingis making a transition into the team dynamic, Smart’s impact and efficiency comes more into question.
It’s not as simple as addition by subtraction. Smart was far more significant to the Celtics’ success than to summarize this season that way. But the Celtics are a more versatile and balanced team with Holiday in the starting lineup, helped by the sparkling play of Derrick White.
Smart is making an impact in Memphis. He has become an immediate leader and role model for Morant, the troubled guard who may be nearing his last chance in the league. On the floor, Smart’s numbers are pretty similar to his Boston days. He’s shooting 29.5 percent from the 3-point line and averaging 12.5 points. Smart is committing 3.4 turnovers per game, a career high, but also collecting a career-best two steals.
It’s typical Smart. There’s good and there’s not so good.
Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said the impact has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I thought Marcus was finding his stride [before the injury],” Jenkins said. “Trying to learn where Marcus is really successful on both sides of the floor. I thought he was doing a really good job playmaking-wise. Trying to build chemistry with his teammates — I think he’s done a great job off the court with his guys. Dinners, having them play cards, hanging out together on the plane — his voice has really made an impact with this group in a positive way.
“I felt like he was making his stride the last couple of games and then he has a freak fall down, ankle-foot injury. His competitiveness is the thing I always lean into. I think he’s got a competitive fire in practice. In the film sessions, the knowledge he brings, the experience level he’s brought, and, obviously, the struggles we’re having — he’s just got an even keel about him. He knows what we’ve got to do every single day preparation-wise.”
It was a bizarre sight to see Smart pull aside his Memphis teammates, and offer strategy against the likes of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Smart was initially devastated by the trade. He wanted to win a championship in Boston. He wanted to see this journey through after nine years and it has to be difficult to be on the other side when the Celtics appear to have that championship mettle.
“I think he meant a lot [to the franchise],” Brown said of Smart. “The franchise should be pleased and grateful to someone that put their heart on their sleeve and went out there every night and dove on the floor, jumped into the stands, carried that same passion the city of Boston moves with, too. I think the reason why Marcus has such a big following in Boston is a lot of people identify [with him]. Marcus Smart was a lot of people’s spirit animal.
“Marcus definitely meant a lot to the organization.”
But the organization has moved on. The Celtics thought they were putting Smart in a winning situation in Memphis but the first month of the season has been a nightmare. The sellout crowd of 17,798 were on their feet for most of the fourth quarter and went into a frenzy when Desmond Bane drained a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1 minute, 48 seconds left. But the Grizzlies wouldn’t score again.
The Celtics’ talent and guile won out. Porzingis, the player acquired for Smart, tied the game with free throws and put Boston ahead with a dunk with 61 seconds left. It was another difficult defeat for the Grizzlies, who may never recover from this ghastly start. Meanwhile, Smart is weeks away from his body allowing him to aid the effort.