In recent weeks, the Celtics tried their best to temper expectations about Marcus Smart’s return from his April 7 oblique tear.
The guard was initially ruled out for 4-6 weeks, but coach Brad Stevens consistently said he thought Smart would most likely be back at the later end of that timeline. Smart initially talked about how it hurt to walk or even laugh. Stevens has remained coy about Smart’s progress, seeming to feign a total lack of knowledge about where things stood.
But there were some obvious hints of improvement. Two weeks ago, Smart said he hoped to just begin jogging in about two weeks. Then there was Smart a few days later, working up a sweat on a treadmill. Then there was Smart, throwing down a two-handed dunk.
Smart might just heal quickly, have an unusually high pain threshold, or the Celtics might have just been sandbagging this whole time in case of a setback. The truth is probably a combination of all three. But on Sunday afternoon there was Smart, once again dripping with sweat, this time with some of his most encouraging news in weeks.
“Feeling good today,” he said. “Today was a good day. I was able to participate with the team, real light. The boxes are being checked. We’re taking it one day at a time but we’re definitely in the right position, right time, progressive phase to where I’m getting really close to coming back.”
Smart has officially been upgraded to questionable for Game 4 of this conference semifinal series against the Bucks. And based on what Smart said Sunday, it sounds very much like he will play as long as he can avoid a setback when he wakes up Monday morning.
Smart said he was cleared for full-contact workouts Saturday. He took part in some three-on-three drills in which he tried “all kinds of things to get hit,” just to make sure that he can. Because if he is going to come back, he certainly wants to come back as Marcus Smart, and that will involve bumps and bops. He absorbed contact going through screens, and guarding players going around screens. He took passes in the post, and took elbows and jabs. He even took a charge.
“I wasn’t trying to, just kind of fell,” Smart said, smiling. “I kind of fell, I wasn’t even trying to take it. It was ironic, because that’s what I needed to do. And it just happened on its own, natural. It felt fine.”
And, perhaps most importantly, he felt fine Sunday, too. Stevens said that whenever Smart comes back, he will have his minutes restricted, mostly because he has gone four weeks without running up and down a court. And he will be utilized in shorter bursts that allow him to go all-out.
“You’re always thinking how it impacts your rotation, who he’s going to play with, how it fits together,” Stevens said. “Does he complement the people he’s playing with more or not? When to play him? All those things. At the same time I think if Marcus becomes available, whenever he becomes available, he’s a guy who can impact the game whether it’s for a couple of minutes or a long time. We’ll certainly utilize him and we’ll be happy when we get him back.”
Last season Smart missed the first four games of the Celtics’ opening-round series against the Bucks because of a torn ligament in his thumb. He returned in Game 5 and helped the Celtics win two of the next three games to advance to the conference semifinals.
There was some concern that after returning from an injury like that one, he would not have the same devil-may-care approach that he usually does. Just a few minutes into his first game back, he sprawled across the floor and reached for a loose ball with that surgically repaired thumb.
“If I’m able to play I doubt there would be moves I can’t make,” he said Sunday. “So we’ll see. Hopefully, if I’m able to play, they don’t tell me, ‘All right, there are these restrictions.’ Hopefully they’ll just let me go play.”
The Celtics allowed an average of 101.3 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, but have surrendered 107 this series against the Bucks. The return of Smart, an All-Defensive candidate this season, would be an obvious boon.
He would likely be deployed to defend Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton, and would also be a good weapon to draw offensive fouls against the relentless drives of superstar big man Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“Oh, man, it’s been brutal for me,” Smart said about sitting out. “I’m not going to lie. Especially when you go back in that locker room, especially after a game like Friday where guys are exhausted and you can see it on their faces and everything and they weren’t pleased with the outcome.
“You’ve got to sit there and look and coach is talking about the things you did wrong, and you’re not included in that. It’s just a bad feeling. Hopefully, that can change.”