It was Jan. 24 and the Washington Wizards, hosting the Boston Celtics later that night, arrived to their arena dressed in all black.
The message was obvious: They were dressed for a Celtics funeral.
And the worst part about it all? The Celtics played like the walking dead that night. The Wizards killed them, 123-108.
It was a bit of a low moment in the C’s season (despite the fact the Wizards were and still are playing extremely good basketball), as Boston lost its third straight game and got embarrassed by a team it had handled two weeks earlier.
But that was then.
Flash-forward to Tuesday and the Celtics are back from the dead. They’ve won 10 of their last 11 games since that loss in Washington, and now find themselves cemented in second place in the East, just two games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers (who just lost Kevin Love for six weeks due to a knee injury).
Their most recent win in Dallas had Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle telling reporters that the Celtics have “a legitimate chance to get to the Finals.”
There are a number of reasons you could point to for why the Celtics are having success. One of them has to be the play of Isaiah Thomas, who has become the NBA’s best fourth-quarter scorer and a player who has also jumped into the NBA MVP argument.
But what about fellow Celtics guard Marcus Smart? Yes, it’s often times Thomas hitting a dagger 3-pointer, or slithering his way to the basket for a nifty layup and the foul. Before that, though, it’s Smart with the antagonizing defense, the clean steal, or the charge taken.
A lot of what Smart does for the Celtics will not show up in his stats at the end of the season, but one thing that is apparent to everybody who watches the games is that Smart’s attitude and hustle is contagious and leads to winning.
Let’s go back to Feb. 3, with the Lakers in town. Nick Young and D’Angelo Russell had just hit four 3-pointers in under two minutes during a first-quarter run, and made sure to dance down the court after each shot.
Watching from the bench, Smart was no fan of this. Upon being inserted into the game at the 5:53 mark, he proceeded to steal the ball three times in the quarter, putting a quick end to the Lakers’ little show. He finished with just nine points, but was a team-high plus-11. That’s Smart’s game.
After that game, he said in the locker room that watching that from the bench in his home arena made him want to shut the Lakers down even more.
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens certainly noticed the difference.
“I thought he was probably the one individual you could single out in that first quarter that got us headed in the right direction because his defense changed our defense,” Stevens said then.
The Celtics just finished off a successful 3-1 road trip out west, one that was without Avery Bradley for all four games, Jae Crowder for two, and Jaylen Brown for one.
Smart started in the final three, and again made his mark – especially in last Thursday’s win over the Blazers, where he finished with 18 points, six rebounds, five assists, five steals, and two big charges taken.
Smart, the versatile glue guy, is averaging 31.0 minutes per game for a Celtics team looking to make lots of noise in the playoffs.
With the NBA trade deadline looming, there will undoubtedly be talk about how the Celtics can improve from the outside.
Jimmy Butler? DeMarcus Cousins? The names will keep surfacing. But those players will come at a cost.
You have to think that with the way Smart is playing these days, he’d be a hot commodity. But he may be becoming too important to part with.