By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — At the ripe old age of 23, Marcus Smart is the longest-tenured member of the Boston Celtics.
Throughout his three-plus seasons in Boston after being selected sixth overall in 2014, Smart has done a lot of things. He’s proven himself to be a tenacious defender. He’s missed a lot of shots. A lot of shots.
And he’s also established himself as a relentless agitator who can get under the skin of any opponent. There’s been no better example of this unique skill than what the guard did to James Harden in the closing seconds of Boston’s improbable come-from-behind victory over the Rockets.
It all started with 17 seconds left and the Rockets clinging to a three-point lead. Smart drove to the basket Tarik Black for a layup to cut the lead to one.
After Harden hit a pair of free throws to stretch the lead back to three, Smart assisted on a Jayston Tatum dunk, which cut the Rockets’ lead to one point with 7.3 seconds left to play in the game.
The Celtics still needed to foul on the inbound pass, then scramble to make a game-tying or game-winning shot.
Or they just needed Marcus Smart to achieve Peak Marcus Smart™.
As Trevor Ariza looked to inbound the ball, Smart briefly wrapped his arms around Harden, then let go at what proved to be a perfect time. Unhappy with being wrapped up but a split-second late in responding, Harden pushed Smart when it appeared to the referee that Smart was merely playing tight defense. Smart hit the deck; an offensive foul was called on Harden.
Smart may have fallen to the parquet easily, but that’s all part of the agitation strategy when it comes to getting an MVP-caliber player off his game.
It proved to be a successful tack.
After Harden’s foul, Al Horford backed Black down and buried a go-ahead bucket with 3.7 seconds left to play. It was once again time for a Houston inbound pass. And it was once again time for Smart to bother Harden.
This time, whatever Smart did or said to Harden was a bit more subtle. But the one thing Smart clearly didn’t do was let Harden breathe, to the point where referee Tony Brothers had to walk over to the two players and physically separate them after Harden had issued a pair of weak shoves.
Frustrated, Harden ended up rushing toward the baseline and, after some less noticeable shoves proved fruitless in shedding the tenacious Smart, he extended a forearm into the midsection of Smart, who went tumbling to the court to draw yet another foul on Harden.
Horford missed his first free throw off the following possession, but when he intentionally missed his second, Houston had just 2.0 seconds to heave a desperation shot off a rebound. It was no good, and the Celtics escaped with an incredible victory.
“We were just trying to deny him the ball,” Smart said of the first foul he drew. “When you get up in him and you give him only one way to go, it’s hard. It becomes frustrating … We were trying to make it real uncomfortable for him the whole night, and he just lost it and gave me a little nudge.”
On the second foul, Smart said Harden lost control.
“He’s bumping me, chest-to-chest and I’m just standing in my spot ready to play defense again,” Smart said, per Celtics.com. “My hands are up, and then once again he does the same thing. He loses it again and the ref was right there again and he called it.”
Smart’s teammates weren’t surprised by the events on the floor.
“Man, that just shows how crazy he is,” Rozier said. “He’s special, man. A guy like that, it’s not the first time I’ve seen him do things like that. But like I said, he’s just crazy. You need a crazy guy like that.”
Smart’s skill — and make no mistake, what he does is a skill — cannot be taught, and it’s not something that most players would necessarily want to be taught. But the edge and effort that he brings to the court in situations late in games often makes the difference between a win and a loss. And there’s nobody in the NBA quite like Marcus Smart.
“It just shows the value of Marcus Smart for our group, what he does to our team,” Horford said. “It all started with him in the second half, in the third [quarter], picking up Harden and just wearing him down and just staying after him. Smart’s pretty banged up and he just kind of found a way to get out of his comfort zone, play as hard as he could. And that fueled the rest of the team. … That’s how special he is. And when he plays at that level, we’re just a different team.”
Harden, who managed to score 34 points on a 7-for-27 shooting night, had little to say about Smart and instead talk about the lack of a third referee. (Mark Lindsay could not officiate the game due to a back injury.)
“First of all, how do you only have two officials on a national TV game?” Harden asked reporters. “That is the first question. But a lot of grabbing, a lot of holding. How else am I supposed to get open? A guy has two arms wrapped around my whole body. But yeah. We blew a lead, turned the ball over a little too much, and that was that.”
In a follow-up, Harden was asked specifically for his thoughts on the two charge calls.
“I just spoke up on it,” he answered.
And when asked why it was difficult to slow down the Celtics during the second half, Harden went back to his officiating gripe.
“Like I said in the first statement, you know it’s tough, you can’t have two officials in a professional game,” he said. “There was a lot of no-calls that needed to be called because that changes the dynamic of the game. Then you got fast break points, no calls, turnovers or whatever the case may be. But this is a professional game, national TV. Can’t happen.”
Harden certainly has a point. But he also certainly committed those fouls. His real frustration lies with a young man named Marcus Smart, who proved Thursday night that he can make even the best players in the world look foolish in ways that few men can.