How Marcus Smart got under Giannis' skin and sparked a Celtics comeback


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BOSTON — Marcus Smart jammed his posterior into the lower body of Giannis Antetokounmpo even before Pat Connaughton elevated with a 3-point attempt. By the time the ball got to the rim, Smart had driven the reigning MVP out of the restricted area to allow Kemba Walker to swoop in for the rebound.

An annoyed Antetokounmpo, his right arm tangled with Smart, wrapped his free arm around Smart’s back and fell backwards, seemingly intent on drawing a foul call. Smart, well versed in the art of whistle grifting, raised his hands towards a nearby referee to demonstrate that what was about to happen wasn’t Smart’s fault.

Antetokounmpo crashed to the floor in front fo the Bucks’ bench and Smart — arms still outstretchd — splashed on top of him like Jimmy Snuka coming off the cage against Don Muraco. As players rushed over in fear of a scuffle, Smart calmly disengaged and pleaded his case to referee Marc Davis, who charged Antetokounmpo with the loose-ball foul.

“That right there,” Smart said, referencing the tumble, when asked how he knew he was getting under Antetokounmpo’s skin. "Every time I’m boxing him out, he’s trying to throw me out the way. It lets me know he’s frustrated, I’m getting to him, especially when he’s not getting to the ball, or he’s not getting to the rim, or he’s not getting the shots that he usually gets.”

The Celtics, shorthanded after Jaylen Brown was a late scratch due to illness and playing their fourth straight game without one of their primary centers, dispatched Smart as a starter Wednesday night. Coach Brad Stevens, likely emboldened after watching Smart joust with Antetokounmpo at the FIBA World Championships in China in August, tasked his 6-foot-4 guard with being the primary defender on the 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo.

The late-game tumble ought to tell you how the matchup played out but the NBA’s matchup-tracking data confirms Smart’s absurd efforts in limiting the MVP.

Smart was credited with defending Antetokounmpo for a team-high 4 minutes, 26 seconds. Over the course of 17 possessions, Antetokounmpo generated just 5 points on 1-of-2 shooting while committing three turnovers. Boston’s other so-called Giannis Stopper, third-year wing Semi Ojeleye, logged 15 defensive possessions over 3:28 and limited Antetokounmpo to 2 points on 1-of-2 shooting.

Smart hadn’t spent more than 3:06 defending any other player in Boston’s first three games but spent much of this night glued to Antetokounmpo. Smart very much enjoyed the challenge.

“Oh, I love it. I’m ecstatic about it every single time I get the opportunity,” said Smart. "Giannis is a great player, and rightfully so. He dictates that much attention from a team. We played really good as a team tonight it took everybody and they all helped.”

Undeniably, the Celtics sent a lot of bodies at Antetokounmpo and everybody played a part in walling off the paint and preventing easy drives, especially after Antetokounmpo got to the rim a couple times in the opening minutes while Milwaukee built a 19-point lead.

But it was Smart who played primary antagonist as Antetokounmpo settled for a 22-point, 14-rebound night — modest by his MVP standards. Smart further offset Antetokounmpo’s impact by chipping in 19 points and six assists of his own. Smart finished 5-of-11 shooting beyond the 3-point arc. 

"Over the years, playing against that man, he’s just a tough guy. He never shies away from the moment,” said Celtics newcomer Kemba Walker. “He made some huge shots. At one point, when we were all struggling, he was the one keeping us in the game making all the right plays.”

Smart frustrated Antetokounmpo from the jump, forcing a jump ball early in the first quarter. Late in the third frame, Smart took a charge when Antetokounmpo plowed into him with a spin move. Smart thought he deserved a similar call late in the fourth and earned a technical foul when he protested to a nearby official. 

Then came the tumble with Antetokounmpo. This time he got the whistle he wanted. Though his mind was on other matters as the two slammed to the ground.

"At that moment, don’t lose any more money for me,” joked Smart. "But me and Giannis been battling the whole night. A couple calls didn’t go our way early on but we just stayed with it so I kept my hands up and when I got the call I just — that was everything we needed. It was a momentum-changer for us, it kept us with the momentum, it got the team going and it got me going.”

Truth be told, Smart was already going. He’d been going pretty much the whole night. And the Celtics don’t win that game without his efforts to keep them afloat whenever the Bucks threatened to rip the game open.

Smart staked an early claim to earning another All-Defense first-team nod. If he keeps embracing the challenge of defending All-Star bigs, maybe he’ll be the rare guard to get some consideration for Defensive Player of the Year.

Where do C's stand in A. Sherrod Blakely's NBA Power Rankings?

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