Marcus Smart makes his awaited return to Boston tonight, as the Celtics host the Memphis Grizzlies at TD Garden.
Though he won't play, it's the first time Smart will walk into a building he called home for over nine years but on an opposing team's roster since being traded this past offseason for Kristaps Porzingis.
C's head coach Joe Mazzulla had nothing but high praise for Smart, who was known for making "game-winning plays," when asked about his former starting point guard.
"I always said you don't replace a guy like him, you just find different ways to be able to do it," Mazzulla said during his Saturday presser. "Who he is will always be etched into the City of Boston because of what he's done in community service and what he's done here, which is helping represent and give. I think he's one of the guys that started our defensive foundation before I got here because of his ability to compete at a high level, to defend at a high level and execute different coverages.
"Who he is off the court and kind of what he brings from a mind-set standpoint and a defensive intensity standpoint. It'll be good to see him tomorrow."
Smart has been sidelined with a right finger injury for six weeks, which is another reminder of his hard-nosed hustle style of play -- especially on the defensive end -- that made him a fan favorite here in Boston the moment he was drafted No. 6 overall in 2014.
While the concern that the Celtics would really miss Smart's toughness and intensity on defense once he was dealt, Mazzulla doesn't agree with that being the case 49 games into the season so far.
"You don't replace him. It just looks different," Mazzulla said. "[Jayson] Tatum dove on the floor for a loose ball. Derrick [White]'s making winning plays and the back tips in transition. Jrue [Holiday]'s [got] constant intensity and focusing on everyone's strengths and what they’re able to do. Jaylen's individual defense, that’s just as tough as what another player does. It just looks different.
"So, I think you just have to highlight each person's definition of toughness and how that pertains to helping our team win as well."
If anything, Mazzulla credits Smart for setting the example when it comes to the noticeable improvements on the defensive end for Brown, Tatum, and the rest of the Celtics team -- which is ranked top-five in defensive rating around the league.
"When you have a guard who plays as hard as he does and guards centers, point guards, picks up full court, boxes out, [takes] charges and does all of those little things, I think, go into it," Mazzulla said of his team still feeling the impact Smart keft. "For him to win Defensive Player of the Year, he was the first guard since Gary Payton [in 1995-96], it’s always been big to do it. So, when you see a guard have an impact on the game at so many levels the way he did, I think that’s kind of what started it."
One of Smart's former Celtics teammates Payton Pritchard was stunned and called the trade "crazy to see" when it went through last June. Obviously, the young point guard has taken full advantage of his increased role and playing time since Smart's departure.
While Pritchard says it's been "weird" seeing Smart play for another team this season, he still gave him props for his character on and off the court -- acknowledging what the veteran meant to the city of Boston.
"Marcus is just a good dude at heart," Pritchard told reporters. "He wants to have a good time, a competitor, but he looks out for his people. I admire that about him."
Smart for the second time will be missing a matchup between the Grizzlies and the Celtics, as he was out previously with another injury when these two teams played last November in Memphis. Boston would go on to win 102-100 in a tightly contested game that went down to the wire despite the hometeam playing short-handed.
With Smart not playing, Mazzulla hopes there'll be no getting emotional until well after the game is over and players can get to catch up with their former teammate.
"After the game, it'll be good," Mazzulla said when asked if it’ll be good to see Smart on Sunday. "During the game, trying to win the game. But it doesn't change who he is as a person."
In the meantime, Smart -- who's only played 20 games in an injured-ravaged season with the Grizzlies -- will most definitely get a video tribute from a franchise that first took a risk on him upon the start of his NBA journey, showing all of his hustle plays that epitomized him as a true Celtic along with the work he did in the community.
"I think there will be a little bit of extra emotion because of how Smart’s been able to impact the community and impact the Garden so many times," Mazzulla said. "Hopefully, during a timeout, I don’t know if his hand still hurts, but if he can dive on the floor for a loose ball."
The Celtics and Grizzlies tip-off from the Garden at 6:00 pm ET.
Photo used courtesy of The Boston Herald
Photo used courtesy of The Boston Herald