With the complete Celtics group gathered on the apply facility Monday, Marcus Smart walked out to the ground to see a Celtics alumnus able to greet him. Gary Payton was ready with a shocking prop to make a presentation, a printout of Smart tweeting The Athletic contributor Seth Partnow pontificating on the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award, one Smart has been actively eying.

As Smart has gone from the little guard engine who may to the central mind of the league’s greatest defensive hivemind, Payton has spoken about how a lot he appreciates Smart.

“You’re a guy that I think reminds me of myself,” Payton advised Smart. “Everybody asks me about it all the time and it be you. You play the D the way you’re supposed to. You play it with a chip on your shoulder and with heart.”

Then he advised Smart there was an error, that Smart’s Rule 47.1A had been amended.

“No guards without the initials GP or MS are allowed to win DPOY.”

Smart is the primary guard to win the award since Payton 26 years in the past, the primary Celtics participant to take it dwelling since Kevin Garnett led the franchise to banner No. 17 in 2008. He joins Sidney Moncrief, Alvin Robertson, and Payton as the one gamers beneath 6-foot-6 to win the award since its inception in 1982.

It’s a historic second for a recreation that has turned itself inside-out since these days. Since Michael Jordan gained it in 1988, solely Ron Artest, Kawhi Leonard and Payton might be thought-about non-bigs to have gained the award, relying on the way you need to categorize Giannis Antetokounmpo.

But Smart exudes that very same defensive transcendence that makes him greater than a guard, greater than a sure function.

“I think I should be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year ’cause who is more unique to guard all five positions than me?” Smart advised The Athletic in 2020. “The last guard to get it was Gary Payton. That’s without him guarding centers. I’m guarding guards and centers. So I think that’s a no-brainer. Stretch six, there you go.”

At that point, he touted his versatility as the last word advantage in a league that was emphasizing it. He and Rudy Gobert debated who had extra affect within the pick-and-roll chain: the perimeter defender on the level of assault setting the tone for the play or the middle who completed it off? Gobert argued he needed to end off each play, regardless of who was coming his method. Smart argued he must tackle one of the best participant his group confronted each evening. Gobert gained out in the long run, as Smart’s sixth-place end within the 2020 voting was nonetheless one of many highest outcomes for a small guard in a while.

Then a brand new coach got here in and determined to rebuild the system round Smart. Switch every part. Let Smart begin on the group’s greatest guard, however find yourself masking each participant, each play.

“That stretch-six, I mean that wholeheartedly,” Smart mentioned Monday. “Just things that I’m able to do allows Ime (Udoka) and his coaching staff to come up with different schemes to keep guys (on) their toes and when you got a scheme and somebody that can run the schemes the way that you want them to run and not worrying about being a liability on that end, it makes a lot of things easier for a lot of people and that’s what it is.”

The Udoka switching scheme permits Smart to be extra like a middle, coordinating the protection from the middle fairly than up prime. Because he now not chases the ball or helps off the wing as he sticks to 1 man, he retains himself in the course of the play always. It permits him to make use of maybe his biggest talent to make the Celtics protection lastly attain the heights it has aspired to for years.

“My IQ is extraordinary, especially on that end,” Smart mentioned. “I’m able to see things that most people aren’t able to see on that end, see things coming. My instincts go into that as well and I have really great instincts on that end. So for me to be able to communicate to guys, it makes their job a lot easier. They don’t have to think too much. They can just do it and react and trust that I’m actually telling them the right things to do.”

It was obvious this could come collectively early within the season. The Celtics have been combating via fixed blown switches and confusion on closeouts after they left on a highway journey to Florida a number of weeks into the season. Before they confronted Orlando, they’d a group assembly making an attempt to get on the identical web page for the primary — and definitely not final — time. They held the Magic and Heat to 79 and 78 factors, respectively. That was 50 fewer factors than they’d surrendered to Chicago to begin the week.

There was a second early within the Orlando recreation when their scheme wasn’t working and Smart walked over to Udoka throughout some first-quarter free throws. He advised Udoka they needed to cease switching on Cole Anthony’s pick-and-rolls and Udoka listened. Smart locked up Anthony the remainder of the evening, and the Magic scored simply 65 factors over the subsequent 45 minutes because the Celtics crushed them. From that time on, the group began making the reads on whether or not to modify as an alternative of simply doing it blindly, and the protection reworked.

Even earlier than Udoka tweaked the scheme to maneuver Rob Williams into his backline function, the group climbed into the highest 5 in defensive ranking after that evening in Orlando. The scheme turned extra complicated and unpredictable on a nightly foundation, with Smart popping up in several spots each recreation to wreak havoc. It had turn out to be clear that he wasn’t simply the center and soul of the protection, however he was its inspiration.

“I’m one of the guys to lead that charge, so it’s definitely a great feeling,” Smart mentioned. “Something different has hit in the way the game is being played, how it’s shifting, how guard-based and perimeter-based it is. From that standpoint, guards can get even more recognition.”

Marcus Smart. (Brian Babineau / NBAE by way of Getty Images)

When the Celtics catapulted to the highest defensive ranking within the league throughout their outstanding second-half turnaround, the nationwide dialogue began to show Smart and Williams’ method. To the surface, it regarded just like the basic guard-center dichotomy: Smart units them up so Williams may knock them away. But issues modified when Williams was requested why he thought he ought to win DPOY himself.

“I think Smart deserves it, to be honest,” Williams mentioned final month. “A lot of my defensive grit and my will to fight out there, I get from just watching him. Even in practice, him being vocal, him on the court. He’s a great defensive anchor for us, but he’s a better leader and he doesn’t even know it. He’s always talking, putting guys where they need to be. I feel like Smart should be the No. 1 runner for that.”

The recognition from the surface world wasn’t at all times there. He was an awesome defender early in his profession, however was nonetheless a sixth man and couldn’t fairly get within the dialog. The 2019-2020 season noticed him lastly breakthrough, however the protection was a letdown final season and his offensive shortcomings and instability at all times overshadowed his repute. Yet, he continued to evolve and turn out to be greater than a maniacal hustler who turned revered in Boston for his unforgettable performs greater than his physique of labor.

“I found something that works for me, that I’m really good at and I’ve tried to master to the best I can,” Smart mentioned. “To be able to win this award, I’m ecstatic, it means a lot. It shows that the hard work I’ve been putting in has finally paid off and the recognition has finally come.”

All the components — from particular person efficiency, group success and nationwide narrative — got here collectively for him this season. But he feels he by no means would’ve made it this far with out the battle to win hearts and minds alongside the way in which.

“I’ve always said that without those naysayers, doubters or what we like to call haters, I wouldn’t be able to go out there and do what I do,” Smart mentioned. “It inspires me to continue to strive to be the greatest I can be at what I do. What I have to say to them is thank you, keep it up.”

(Top photograph of Smart: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

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