SAN FRANCISCO — If the Boston Celtics are to execute what would be a moderate upset of the Golden State Warriors in the 2022 NBA Finals, chances are the two-time league MVP Stephen Curry would need to be slowed down.
The individual responsible for that burdensome task: the 2021-22 Defensive Player of the Year, Marcus Smart.
Smart granted Yahoo Sports a phone interview upon the Celtics landing in the Bay Area ahead of Game 1 on Thursday. The guard discussed his matchup with Curry, how he expects to be greeted for his role in inadvertently injuring the Warriors star, why he won’t alter his style of play and why other players with a similar style go unnoticed, and how the Celtics are preparing for this series.
“First off, this is such a special opportunity and a special assignment to have in guarding Steph on this stage,” Smart told Yahoo Sports. “My first Finals appearance going against one of the greatest who has been here and done it multiple times as the best shooters we have ever seen. I just take the assignment like any other matchup, but this one I’m probably focused a bit more. I’m studying every aspect of his game, just making sure I try to understand to the best of my ability. And I’m really going to make sure I get my rest and my sleep to make sure I’m ready to go.”
Players, such as Minnesota Timberwolves guard Patrick Beverley, have spoken about why it’s essential to get your rest before battling Curry.
Smart echoed that sentiment, but added the bulk of the Warriors’ roster is made up of endurance sprinters.
“Getting sleep in this series is huge, man,” Smart told Yahoo Sports. “Because you know they’re going to make you run. You have to put on your track shoes and you have to be ready. So for me, it’s about being able to get my rest and a good night’s sleep. My conditioning is there to keep up with these guys, but you have to be fresh for them.”
Boston has had quite the laborious postseason journey. The Celtics eliminated a Brooklyn squad featuring Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, they took out Giannis Antetokounmpo and the reigning NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks, and they sent home Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat in a physical seven-game series.
All three opponents aren’t an exact equivalent to Golden State, but Smart opined that Miami was an adequate primer.
“We were able to get a little taste of the way the Warriors play when we faced the Heat with the cutting they do and the way they move off ball and on ball is somewhat similar,” Smart told Yahoo Sports. “Now, obviously it’s not to the extent of the Warriors, but it’s still similar. We just played a grueling seven games having to guard against that offensive scheme. So it’s been getting us prepared for this.”
Smart also will have to get prepared for what is likely to be a heavy dosage of boos by fans at Chase Center.
“I’m used to it,” Smart told Yahoo Sports. “When am I not a target by fans, especially while going up against their favorite player? It’s always been like that. I know I’m not the league’s favorite, I know I’m not the fan favorite all the time and I know I’m not a lot of people’s favorite player. My whole life has been like that. I’ve always been the underdog. I’ve always been the player that’s easily targeted to root against because of the way I play. I’m not the most likable player and I thrive off it. So it’s nothing new to me. I think I have a pretty good mental toughness about it. My team got my back, so I’m good.”
On March 16 against the Warriors, Smart dove for a loose ball and his body landed on Curry’s left ankle. The collision ended with a sprained ligament for Curry that caused him to miss the remainder of the regular season.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr was irate, suggesting it was a “dangerous play.” It was an unfortunate accident that led to questions about Smart’s character and integrity.
“I mean, it wasn't even a problem aside from Kerr’s comments and a couple of fans that just love the Warriors and Steph no matter what anybody does,” Smart told Yahoo Sports. “You’re always going to be wrong when it comes to the Warriors and Steph. You could be right and you’d still be wrong with certain people. I understood Steve Kerr protecting his player, but even Steph came out and said himself that he knows I wasn’t trying to hurt him. I’ve been playing in this league for eight years and not once have I not dove on the floor. So to expect me to do anything less because it was a regular season game is not me. No matter if it’s a regular season game or a preseason game, I’m still diving on the floor. So for me, all I have to do is play basketball and I’ve been taught that the first one to the floor gets the ball.
“And then on top of that, Draymond Green, who’s a phenomenal defender, a phenomenal player. The way he hustles and leaves it all on the court is impressive. But nobody’s saying anything when he dives on the floor and people end up getting hurt. Nobody says that because it’s basketball. We’re not out here trying to hurt anybody. Nobody’s going in saying, ‘You know what, let me take out this guy. Let me hurt this guy.’ Where I come from, I want to play against the best. So if they’re not on the court, I can’t do that.”
Smart should receive Finals MVP consideration should the Celtics execute the defensive game plan to limit Curry and secure the four wins required to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
It’s arguably the best perimeter defender versus arguably the best perimeter player. It’s an offensive juggernaut versus a top-tier defensive team.
It’s a Finals clash that’s expected to deliver the heroics.
“It’s us versus everybody,” Smart told Yahoo Sports. “We know we’re going into another hostile environment. It’s war for us and we got to be prepared for it.”