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It’s easy to forget that players are human and cope with their own personal struggles

Marcus Smart has leaned on friend and ex-teammate Jae Crowder for advice on how to deal with the loss of a loved one.Michael Dwyer/AP

NBA players are not machines, regardless of their bountiful salaries, lavish lifestyles, and physical prowess. They endure personal pain and tragedy as all of us do. The difference is they are asked to perform on a public stage on a nightly basis and are expected to show no sign of dropoff.

This is part of the professional athlete’s job description. Play well and keep playing well, regardless of any personal distractions or issues.

There are times when the Celtics’ Marcus Smart just begins to tear up because of the death of his mother, Camellia, in September. It’s part of his therapy. It’s how he deals with the tragedy and loss. But yet, he fully understands he’s expected to live up to the four-year, $52 million contract he signed just weeks before his mother succumbed to cancer.


So he has to find ways to deal with the pain. Leaning on former teammate Jae Crowder has been one method. Crowder, now with the Utah Jazz, lost his mother to cancer at age 51. Just minutes before her death, Crowder had been traded from the Celtics to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Last season was a difficult one for Crowder. It never quite worked out in Cleveland, and although he was traded to the Jazz — a former team of his father, Corey Crowder

he mourned his mother’s death daily and not even basketball, at times, could serve as a distraction. So when he learned of Smart’s mother’s death, Crowder tried his best to offer advice, although he didn’t feel comfortable because of his own enduring pain.

“It was tough for me to even pick up the phone and give him advice because I still struggle with it on a daily basis,” he said. “I just told him to lean on family. I told him you could look at me as family, but at the same time he needs to feel the love from his family, from his close loved ones. That’s what I did. I depended on my family — my siblings, my grandparents, and everybody like that really helped me mold and cope with what was going on.”


During the Celtics’ loss to Houston on Thursday, Smart picked up a technical foul and afterward appeared to be mouthing words about his mother to himself. Losing a parent is a daily struggle. Memories surface randomly, even on the basketball floor, in front of 20,000 people, in the middle of an intense game.

Related: Marcus Smart’s 2 a.m. gym trips have helped him stay connected to his late mother

“I just try to fight through it,” Crowder said. “When I have days where I’m missing her like crazy, I don’t want to go to work, I don’t want to practice, I take a minute, I reflect back and I regroup, and go do what I’ve got to do. At the same time, I have to provide for my family, I have to provide for myself, so it’s hard. I’m not even going to lie to you, I still have my days. It’s almost a year, a year passed.”

Crowder said that’s his best therapy, leaning on loved ones.

“That’s my biggest advice to him is you need to be around family at this time,” Crowder said. “I talk to Marcus a lot. We follow each other on social media and we do that a lot. I do have my days where it’s tough for me. I don’t give up. I’m not going to give up, that’s just who I am.”


Crowder said in January there are days — even game days — when he doesn’t feel like doing anything besides thinking about his mother. He still has those days, but he said he has learned to cope, focus on basketball, and relay to those close to him when he is having a difficult time.

“As long you communicate with your teammates and the guys that you go to war with every night, coaching staff and teammates, they’ll understand,” he said. “I feel like my teammates really understand me. I come to practice some days and I don’t have the vocalness that I usually have and they feel like something is off. They know. I’ll just tell them today is a tough day for me.

“But I’m here and I’m going to give it my maximum effort and they understand. I try not to let that interfere on game days, but I have my days. I’m not even going to lie to you, but I fight that and I stay the course and I make sure all these guys in the locker room understand what I’m going through.”


Pierce remains bullish on Celtics

Paul Pierce still believes the Celtics are a championship-caliber team. Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Paul Pierce is a former Celtic and also an NBA analyst. His Boston ties remain strong, and he remains one of the biggest proponents of this inconsistent Celtics team. Pierce has stressed patience for an impatient fan base that expected an elite team from the beginning.


That hasn’t been the case. But Pierce still sees similarities between this club and the 2008 Celtics championship team. Maybe, if you squint hard enough.

“The difference I see with this group, you’ve got a lot of young guys who are still really trying to establish themselves as NBA players and make a name for themselves,” he said. “[Jayson] Tatum, [Jaylen] Brown, they’re still trying to figure out who they’re going to be. They play a star’s type of role. At the point of when we came together, we knew who we were but we also knew what we wanted and we knew in order to get there we had to sacrifice.”

The 2008 team was a group of players who had already earned personal success, including All-Star Game appearances for Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett. But none of those three had even reached an NBA Finals, so their goals and team focus were different.

“We already had our niche in the league. There are certain guys out there who are still trying to prove themselves,” Pierce said. “Gordon [Hayward] is trying to prove that he’s back. Tatum wants to prove that he’s an elite player, Brown also. So a lot of those little things can get in the way of what the true vision is when you’re trying to find that niche again. But I think ultimately these guys are smart and they’re talented and they’ll figure it out.”


What the Celtics have been working on the past few weeks is being more selfless. The players tried it their way by showing their individual games, and it resulted in a disappointing 10-10 start. The Celtics were 10-4 since then, going into Saturday’s game, but they are still far from reaching their potential. Pierce said sacrifice is a process.

“It’s a tough situation when you’re trying to tell a young player to take a step back,” Pierce said. “But these players have so much talent because a lot of these players on this team, you’re not going to see their true talent come out because of the depth, because of the players they have on this team. It’s similar to what you saw with [James] Harden in Oklahoma City — you didn’t know Harden was going to be the Harden today when he moved from Oklahoma City to Houston. And I see a few guys on this team like that.

“Like I said, if they’re able to take a step back, sacrifice their game for the good of the team, they’ll be better.”


Bucks’ Middleton a big-time talent

Bucks forward Khris Middleton has emerged as one of the top shooters in the NBA.Elise Amendola/AP

Celtics fans should be familiar with Khris Middleton, who shredded the local team in last season’s playoff series, so much so it seemed he never missed a shot. He splashed 3-pointers, floaters, and layups, emerging as a bona fide second option and cohort in Milwaukee to superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Bucks are no longer an emerging team. They have arrived, evidenced by their impressive win over the Celtics on Dec. 21, a game in which Middleton had 21 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists in near anonymity, exactly how he prefers.

The 6-foot-7-inch swingman is highly regarded inside NBA circles but barely noticed outside of his fantasy basketball impact. An impending free agent, Middleton could earn a $100 million deal from the right team next summer, considering his ability to score and facilitate. Middleton is scoring less this season because of fewer minutes and the Bucks’ increased depth, but he’s averaging career highs in rebounds and assists.

Middleton is a major contributor to Milwaukee’s successful basketball machine, but he would likely go unnoticed if he walked the streets of any NBA city — besides Milwaukee.

“In Milwaukee, we’re a small-market team, so basketball players are always known around there, whether you’re a first-year player or 10-year player,” he said. “As far as everywhere else, nah. I could walk down the street naked and they would just look at me like, ‘Who is this crazy naked guy walking down the street?’ That’s cool. Even back home I’m able to relax and just live life.”

Middleton has no issue with the lack of outside notice, as long as he gets his proper respect where it counts. He is considered a staple with the Bucks — parallel with the gifted Antetokounmpo, an MVP candidate.

Middleton may receive some All-Star consideration but is only truly interested with Milwaukee’s ascension.

“There’s a time where I will voice my opinion on things when I feel strongly about it, but for the most part I let my game do the talking and I know everything else will take care of itself,” he said. “I’m not a guy that wants a lot of attention or needs it, I’m just going to be me, and going to be comfortable being me.

“I feel like [thinking about free agency is] a huge distraction for me because you’re not focusing on what the team is doing and what we need to do tonight. You’re focusing on the future and for me, I don’t like living like that.”

Entering Friday, the Bucks were one game behind Toronto for first place in the Eastern Conference. Under new coach Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks are leading the NBA in scoring and point differential.

“We had a crazy start of the season, went through a little rough patch. But we learned about ourselves, knew what we needed to do every night, and we’re still learning some new things,” Middleton said. “I think we’re showing a lot of growth, a lot of maturity about taking care of business.

“That’s the most important thing — playing every game, only focus about us, not worry about too many other things.”

The Bucks’ seven-game loss to the Celtics in last season’s playoffs was a definite learning experience for a franchise without much recent success. The sting of the loss lingers and has served as motivation for players who believed they were better than the shorthanded Celtics.

“Last year was the first time we were in the playoffs, so each one is a learning step,” Middleton said. “Of course, we felt like we failed. This year it’s in the back of guys’ minds, but we know we have to get there first. We have to take care of business during the regular season and once that moment comes, we’ll worry about that then.”

The hiring of Budenholzer, who replaced interim coach Joe Prunty, was viewed as an upgrade, but observers weren’t sure how much of an upgrade. Budenholzer won 60 games three years ago with the Atlanta Hawks, but the franchise had endured difficult times of late.

Surprisingly, the biggest impact the defensive-minded Budenholzer has had on the Bucks has been at the offensive end.

“We have a little bit more freedom, a lot more space,” Middleton said. “The main thing now is he’s adjusting a little bit more to guys and how we play, guys’ skill sets, knowing what guys like to do. But the main thing is we’re trusting him. We know he has a system in place. We know it’s worked in the past and guys are believing in that.

“Each coach that we’ve had here has been great, going back to Larry Drew, just letting us play, letting us experience game minutes. And then with [Jason Kidd] it was a different mind-set, a tough mind-set with him. And here [with Budenholzer] it’s just taking care of business, thinking about the long haul of things instead of the short term.”

The addition of Brook Lopez, improvement from the erratic Eric Bledsoe, and the rise of Antetokounmpo have turned the Bucks into a serious contender, with Middleton as the stabilizing force.

“We all know our role, our skill set, and how it makes the offense work,” he said. “You’ve got Giannis, he’s going to attract a lot of attention in the paint. It’s just on us to feed off that. Bledsoe is doing a great job of mixing up his drives, scoring from the outside and finding [open] guys. Malcolm [Brogdon] is doing a great job of that, too. Me, I’m just trying to find spots where I can be aggressive, score, playmake a little bit.”


It appears the Celtics will stand pat in their search for a center, at least until Jan. 5 when teams can begin to sign players to 10-day contracts. The center market is thin, with players such as Tyler Zeller and Quincy Acy (who is undersized) available. With Al Horford back and Guerschon Yabusele making a faster-than-expected return from a sprained ankle, the Celtics appear content to wait until Aron Baynes returns from his fractured left hand. As for centers who are on the bench with other clubs, such as Bismack Biyombo or Timofey Mozgov, both are virtually trade-proof because they have another year on their contracts. Biyombo, who signed a four-year, $68 million deal with Orlando, has a player option at $17 million for 2019-20. Mozgov is still on a four-year, $64 million Lakers contract and has another guaranteed year with the Magic. He has not played a game this season. At this point, the Celtics likely trust rookie Robert Williams for short minutes in an important game over the available players. So don’t expect any new big men in Boston soon . . . Another player who remains available is Cleveland’s J.R. Smith, who has been away from the team for more than a month after the Cavaliers told him to stay away until they work out a trade. Smith is earning $14.7 million this season, meaning the Cavaliers would have to likely take back an unwanted contract from another club. Of the $15.7 million Smith is scheduled to earn next season, only $3.8 million is guaranteed. So taking on Smith, unless he is bought out, becomes quite a financial investment. Cleveland was able to find a taker for Kyle Korver because his 2019-20 salary was modest ($7.5 million) and he is a more professional and marketable player. Smith could help a team that needs shooting, but the question is whether he would blend into a team environment and not cause distractions. Smith has a soiled reputation after a series of on-court and off-court incidents that have scared teams. His salary doesn’t help, either. The Cavaliers are likely going to have to work out a buyout for Smith to facilitate a breakup, but that would take negotiating money owed this season and next season. Do the Cavaliers want to pay Smith in the neighborhood of $8 million or $9 million to leave?

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.