I can tell you the exact moment when I started to think about the playoffs this year.
It was last Monday night, in Boston, just a few minutes after we’d beaten the Nets. Our second-to-last game of the season had just ended … and I was thinking about a different game.
Miami and Cleveland were playing that night, too, and someone had just told me the game was in OT. So I hustled off the court. I needed to find a TV.
A minute later, I was standing around in the media room, where it was packed with people watching the game. None of the media guys asked me any questions or anything. We were all focused on that game.
When the Heat won, it was like everyone in the room had the same thought, at the same time:
The Celtics could clinch the 1 seed.
This is my third year in the league and it’ll be my third time in the playoffs. We’ve come a long way in my three years here — from a 40–42 team that got swept in the first round in 2015, to 48–34 (our first winning season since 2013) … and then a tough first round playoff loss last spring.
And now top of the East? I don’t take these moments for granted. I really don’t. And I know the seed you get doesn’t matter as much as what you do in the playoffs.
But Boston, I promise you: This year, our team is better. We’re more disciplined. We’re way hungrier.
You know how I know?
It’s Isaiah Thomas.
No, I don’t just mean because we have Isaiah, though obviously that’s part of it. He’s our floor leader, our leading scorer … our Everything Guy — and he does it at 5’ 9”.
It’s something that happened with Isaiah earlier this year, after a practice.
Matt Slocum/AP Images
I was walking off the court next to him, and I guess I was a little too excited, because without even really thinking about it, I start patting Isaiah on the top of his head. I give him a few good, hard pats — just to, I don’t know, let him know that I’m real proud of him. It was just a reflex … like how you pat a kid on the head.
Isaiah stopped smiling.
Shi*t. Not good.
I already knew what I’d done. I’d crossed a line.
He looked up at me and said: “Don’t ever do that again.”
He was very calm about it. Then he nodded. I nodded. And that was it.
And that’s how I know this year’s team is different. That’s how I know this team is ready.
Earning the top seed? Yeah, the team is psyched about that. But if you really want to know what makes us different this year, it’s in that reaction by Isaiah. I know Isaiah well and he’s the best teammate in the world, but even I — just for a moment — made the mistake … the same mistake that other people have been making throughout his whole life:
You don’t pat him on the head. You don’t mess with Isaiah. You respect him.
Right when Isaiah gave me that look, it all made sense. Isaiah is the heart of this team. He’s having an MVP-style year. He never asks for any extra attention, but I know he hates being overlooked. Boston knows all about that. This city doesn’t overlook him, even when other people have.
And just like you don’t mess with Isaiah (lesson learned), you don’t mess with Boston, either.
Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune
We feel like we’re in a great place to make a playoff run. But thinking back to when I was a rookie, three years ago, I remember how things started. My first year wasn’t the easiest or smoothest.
And I’m not only talking about that first winter in Boston, in 2015 … but yo … can we just talk about it for a minute? The city got 111 inches of snow in the span of a few weeks. You know it’s a real winter when Bostonians are telling you that they’ve never experienced anything like it. I remember the snow drifts on the sidewalks in some areas of the city … in May. Yeah, May.
But beyond the crazy weather, even my interactions with people in Boston started out kind of shaky. I’ll give you an example: One day, at an AT&T store in Cambridge, I spent 10 confusing minutes (literally 10) talking to a nice old lady about “the harbor” … before I realized that she was talking about “Harvard.” We had just had a completely different conversation for 10 minutes. When I figured it out, I apologized about mishearing her Boston accent, and she gave me a look, like, O.K., buddy.
See what I mean? I didn’t get off to the best start.
Even the way Tommy Heinsohn, the legendary Celtics commentator (and nicest guy in the world), said my name, those first few months, sounded a little sarcastic to me.
“Mahhhhcus Smaahhht for two … no good.”
I was reading into every little thing.
Unfortunately, that type of mentality made its way onto the court.
In my fifth NBA game, I sprained my ankle and missed the next 10 games. Then after my first game back, they sent me down to the Maine Red Claws, their D-League team. That stint didn’t last long, but when I was back in Boston, I fell into a shooting slump. Maybe it was a result of getting in my own head.
I was starting to hear it a little bit from media and even some fans. I wasn’t taking great shots and I couldn’t find any kind of rhythm on D. And I learned something about Celtics fans: Y’all can be tough. You’re honest, but you’re tough. And I like how you keep it real because I come from a big family and it reminds me of family: You say what you mean. But above all else, you support us through the good and the bad.
At that point, halfway through my rookie year, a Celtics legend reminded me of that. Kevin Garnett wasn’t even on the team anymore, but he did a little thing that made a big impact on me.
It was December of 2014 — we were playing the Nets at the Garden. It was the third quarter and I was guarding Jarrett Jack at the top of the key. KG came to set a pick on me … and then I saw that the ball had popped out of Jarrett’s hands.
A loose ball. The sweetest sight there ever was.
I just went off instinct and jumped on it. I grabbed the ball, but out of the corner of my eye I saw KG — it looked like he was going to land on me, so I just tossed the ball down the court and we ended up getting an easy bucket. KG almost fell right on top of me. The whistle blew. We were still both down on the court, trying not to get tangled up. My first thought was how lucky I was KG didn’t really dive on me.
Then KG gave me a little tap — just real quick, on the chest — and told me I made a good play.
Just that one little compliment from KG meant so much. I haven’t talked to KG about that play since then, but I still think about it. At that time in my rookie year, it was the dose of confidence I needed to keep playing my style of basketball — not to go crazy trying to score a ton of points, but to play my game. And coming from a guy who wore the Celtics uniform … a guy who won a ring for Boston … a guy always embodied that hustle mentality … it wasn’t a small thing for me.
I wonder if he even remembers that play.
I’ve always felt like a little bit of an underdog at each level — never the tallest or strongest or even fastest. But one thing I’ve always tried to do was to play harder than anyone on the court.
This Celtics team has that underdog vibe, too. This is the most talented team I’ve ever been on, but it’s funny: Looking at our starting five, you might not say, “That’s a No. 1 seed right there.”
Here, look at our starting five:
On paper, our team kind of looks like — we joke as a team about this kind of thing all the time — a lineup you’d make if you didn’t know what you were doing in your NBA fantasy draft.
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images
Most of us aren’t even supposed to be here.
You’ve got Jae, he’s a fighter — a guy who went to two JUCO schools before Marquette, and then he was a second-round pick. He’s not supposed to be here, but here he is.
You’ve got Avery — and his success didn’t happen overnight. Avery worked for seven or eight years in this league before people really started to notice the things he does at such a high level. And last year, he was named to First Team All-Defense.
And there’s Isaiah, and everyone knows Isaiah’s story but it’s still impressive: the last pick of the draft and now an All-Star on a playoff team.
And me, I still come off the bench — which means I don’t always know when I’m coming in, or how many minutes I’ll play. But I like my role. It suits me. Coach Stevens says he thinks of me as the Swiss Army Knife — whatever we need in a particular game, that’s what he’ll ask me to do. I pride myself on playing just about every position on the court. It reminds me of a high school memory: When we won the Texas state championship, I was named Mr. Basketball of Texas, but I wasn’t even the highest scorer on my own team. Looking back, it’s one of my proudest basketball moments because it told me I could make an impact on the game just by playing my own way. By being myself.
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports
I think that’s what makes this Celtics team so special this year. Each player knows his role.
I know I don’t pour in the points — we’ll let Isaiah do most of that — but I try to make up for it with steals, rebounds, defensive stops, deflections (I love deflections). Everyone down the roster does that, too. Our team doesn’t have a roster of superstars, but if you add us all up, we like to think that we can be a superstar-style team. We have a group that buys into the mentality that we’re all for one and one for all. (We even had T-shirts made last year with that message on them.) And I’m thankful to Boston because I don’t know if any other city would’ve embraced this team the same way Boston has. We’re about being the best team on the court, not just great individuals. I think Boston really gets that mentality.
Coach Stevens gets it. In one of the biggest games of my career, in first round playoff series against Atlanta last year, Coach showed me that he had the confidence in me to play my game.
We were down 2–1 going into Game 4, which was back at the Garden. It felt like a must-win game for us because a loss would’ve meant going to Atlanta down 3–1.
And Paul Millsap was killing us that game. No one could guard him. He ended up scoring 45. No matter who we threw at him on defense, he was scoring at will. Finally, Coach Stevens gave me a look like, Marcus, you guard him. I knew it was my opportunity to show I could fill whatever role the team needed. I approached it as the one of the biggest moments of my basketball career.
They were going to Millsap every time. And since he’s got at least four inches, and a lot of strength, on me, I tried my best to get beneath him and push him off his spots. I knew I had to make him take shots over me, not let him overpower me inside.
It was one of the most physical games I’ve ever played in. I was able to slow Millsap down just enough to keep us in the game. I even got a couple threes to fall late, too, right when we needed them. We won the game in OT, tying the series at 2–2.
After the game, I remember the crowd giving us a standing ovation. It made me think of something Coach Stevens has said a number of times in my three years as a Celtic: “We gotta give the fans what they deserve.” What Coach means is winning, but maybe more than that, I think he means “winning plays,” a concept that has become part of our team culture.
Of course, we didn’t pull out that series last year. We made some mental mistakes at critical times. We had some injuries. It just didn’t happen for us. And that series has been on our minds for the past year.
Now it’s April again, and I’m telling you: We’re ready.
Boston: We’ve got love for you. We’re going to need you again. You’re the best fans in sports, so we’re going to work as hard as we possibly can to give you what you deserve — just like Coach says.
Our opponents might want to judge our lineup on paper, and so be it. We’re used to scrapping for everything we get.
But a word of advice: Don’t pat Isaiah on the head.
He doesn’t like that.