What happened inside the locker room following back-to-back collapses in the second halves of the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals may one day end up in the long history of Celtics lore.
Marcus Smart screaming at his teammates, reportedly taking them to task for playing me-first basketball. He wasn’t the only one yelling, but it was Smart’s voice that came through above all others, according to reporters who were there.
Smart describes the scene in the locker room that night as emotional.
“We were all upset. We just went down 0-2, both games we thought we should’ve won, with a big time lead. And we sacrificed those leads in the 4th quarter and literally dropped an egg.”
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It’s clear the Celtics understand the opportunity that lies before them in a wide open fight to win an NBA championship.
“We’re in a great spot to do something great and we’re letting it slip away because of our actions. That’s tough to really just sit and let it melt into your head,” Smart explains.
So, he stood up and said something.
“As a leader, you’re going to have to be the bad guy sometimes in that situation. We’ve seen it in The Last Dance. We’ve seen it with these great teams that sometimes the leader has to be that bad guy,” Smart says.
“There are a lot of guys who are just quiet and laid back who compete and love winning. But, sometimes as a leader, you have to be willing to be the bad guy, or the martyr, to get the situation accomplished."
To those on the outside, it appeared the Celtics were imploding, breaking apart at the first real signs of adversity.
Smart believes it’s just the opposite, “I would’ve been more concerned if we were calm and we weren’t as emotional after that Game 2 loss. It just shows how much we care and that we really do care.”
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He hopes the conversations had that night and in the days following made a team that was already close even stronger.
“We learned how to really understand each other through the b.s., I guess you could call it, or the distraction,” he says. “It’s not gonna be perfect. We’re not always going to agree on everything. But it’s okay to have that. We’ve learned to really separate bad intentions from good intentions. And everybody on this team has really great intentions for the team.
"So, being able to play with these guys and go through the adversity that we’re going through is ultimately going to help us as a team and as individuals get better.”
That’s also true of his relationship with Jaylen Brown, who reportedly confronted Smart that night. An evolution since the Celtics drafted Brown third overall in 2016, both have grown to appreciate what the other brings and who they are as people and as competitors.
“That’s my brother. I’d do anything for Jaylen. I’d go to war with Jaylen 100 times out of 100. That’s the relationship we’ve built,” Smart says. “Me and Jaylen are similar in a multitude of ways. We both are competitive guys. We both are strong-minded guys. We both believe in what we believe in and we’re not gonna back down from nobody.”
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Smart sees that as a good thing, especially inside the NBA bubble.
“Being able to have that confrontation is good for us. You get to see what’s really going on with that person. You get to test them and really get them going. Being down here with no fans, it’s tough to create your own energy. Something has to give. You have to be willing to do something. Sometimes you have to light a fire under your teammate's butt. Somebody has to light a fire under your butt to really get you going in times like this.”
We saw the results of those tense moments late in the first half of Game 3. Head Coach Brad Stevens went with his “top five” guys, Smart, Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker for six game-changing minutes. A small sample size, but that group that largely disappointed in limited action through the regular season and a quick stint in the seeding game against the Heat, went on a 10-2 run.
“It was tough because everybody was trying to figure out their roles early on. Especially coming from the season we had last year. Everybody was trying to figure out what best suits them to help the team.” Smart says. But, this time around in the playoffs, “Nothing matters but winning… that’s what it really came down to: just being able and willing to want to play good basketball, not just for yourself but for your teammates and this team.”
The hope is that fire propels the Celtics to Banner No. 18 no matter what else comes their way. As Smart put it: “Pressure either busts pipes or it makes diamonds. Which one are you?”