WALTHAM, Mass. -- Even Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas couldn't muffle a smile as teammate Marcus Smart hit the floor clutching his mouth in the final seconds of Monday's game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Celtics were making a feverish late-game charge and, down 1 with 6.2 seconds to play, Smart attempted to draw a whistle by acting as if he ate an elbow while trapping Zach LaVine.
Smart had certainly gotten bumped in the face while trying to strip LaVine, but as the Timberwolves' guard swung his arm near Smart's head after a whistle on Thomas, Smart flailed backward and grabbed at his mouth, an obvious attempt to draw a foul that might have further aided Boston's comeback effort.
Thomas couldn't help but grin at the effort, and Smart did his best to sell it -- dabbing at his mouth and spitting as if he expected a tooth to fly out -- but the nearby referee didn't bite. LaVine made only one of two freebies, and Smart's pull-up 3-point attempt at the buzzer found front rim as the Timberwolves escaped with a 124-122 triumph.
Smart's defense is a fascinating dichotomy. Maybe the best individual defender on the Celtics' roster, Smart plays with a physicality and a tenacity that's matched by few across the NBA. He bullies opposing point guards with his size and strength and doesn't back down from guarding bigger players -- like when he guarded Knicks center Kristaps Porzingis for an extended stretch earlier this season, despite giving up nearly a foot in height.
Yet Smart often tries to exaggerate contact in hopes of drawing a whistle. Search YouTube and you'll find extended compilations of his perceived flops at Oklahoma State. The Internet has nominated him for "Flop of the Year" no less than three times already this season -- on a Carmelo Anthony backdown; after a Chandler Parsons elbow that -- like LaVine's -- didn't come close to landing; and with Monday's performance.
If the NBA is concerned, it hasn't shown it in the form of a warning. Smart wasn't one of eight players warned by the league this season through Sunday's action. Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he isn't overly worried, either, but he admitted Wednesday that he and Smart discussed those sort of plays.
"I don’t lose sleep over those things. I do think you just have to be conscious of making the right basketball play," Stevens responded when asked Wednesday if Smart might gain a reputation for exaggerating contact. "We’ve talked about that. We met and talked about that a little bit [on Wednesday]. He’s a young player, and he’s got a lot of games in front of him. So, continuing to focus on doing the good things that he does and making that right basketball play is the most important thing. Certainly you just have to be aware of that. And the only answer that you can have to that is moving forward and making the right next play."
Smart, a second-year guard, deserves consideration for the NBA's All-Defense teams. The Celtics own a defensive rating of 98.3 when he's on the court. What's more, he often draws challenging defensive assignments and is holding opponents to 42.3 percent shooting, or 0.8 percent below those players' season average. Smart is also averaging 1.8 steals over 27.2 minutes per game.
There's a line of thinking that suggests Smart doesn't need to exaggerate plays hoping to earn calls and that he might actually be preventing himself from getting other whistles (like his nightly attempt to take at least one legitimate charge). There's another line of thought that suggests, in his desire to help his team win, Smart simply can't help but try any tactic that might generate a call against the opposition.
Smart is hardly the only player in the league that sometimes exaggerates with the goal of earning calls. Celtics fans would quickly point to stars such as Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James as those that sometimes get calls based on reactions.
Smart said Wednesday he's not worried about being labeled a flopper.
"Not at all. I’m gonna play my game and play hard every day," Smart said. "That’s something the coach and this organization doesn’t have to worry about. I feel like the rest of my teammates are gonna pick it up also. I’m not worried about all the other stuff that comes with it. I just play my game."
Smart stressed that he simply wants to have a reputation for playing hard.
"I hope I get stereotyped as a hard-nosed player. That’s who I am," Smart said. "I play hard. I’m not stopping that for anybody. That’s my game. I play with a lot of passion and heart and determination and a lot of will and I never give up. So, if that’s the stereotype I’m getting stereotyped, I’ll take it."
While calmly and confidently fielding the flopping questions, Smart also offered his take on the final shot in the Minnesota game. Thomas appeared to be wide open on the opposite side of the court when Smart elected to pull up over a defender in the final seconds. Smart suggested he hadn't reviewed the play since the loss, but he offered his thought process.
"Well, when I caught it, I caught it so deep with the amount of time I had, and I was getting up the court and I was looking for somebody, but [Ricky] Rubio played in the middle," Smart said. "I really didn’t see nobody open, and he really didn’t commit to me until the last minute as I was going up for the shot. And by that time there wasn’t enough time to make another pass, in my eyes, to another teammate. I at least wanted to get a shot up. I didn’t want to end the game without a shot, so I thought I took the best shot that was available."