Get Smart

LET ME TELL YOU about the left hand of Marcus Smart, how it rose above the heads of three defenders to bank in a basket with 1:10 to play in the fourth quarter of the second game of the first round of the playoffs. We are in Boston, Massachusetts, and it is Wednesday, April 20; we are in the Eastern Conference of the National Basketball Association. Marcus Smart, recently named Defensive Player of the Year, the first time he’s won this award, the first time a guard—a little guy—has won this award since Gary Payton (aka “the Glove”) won it in 1996, and the Boston Celtics are up 110–100 on the Brooklyn Nets, will win 114–107 to take a 2–0 lead in the series. Will win the third game and then the fourth, will sweep.

Long under, even unappreciated, and not just across the league—in Boston, too. Turn on sports radio at any point between draft night, 2014, when Smart was selected sixth, and today, and you’re likely to hear someone argue that now is the time to make a trade, while Smart’s value is high. His value: precisely what can’t be recouped in a trade. What can’t be recouped in a trade: what is called hustle, what is called heart, how much Marcus Smart, whenever he’s on the floor, cares. What Smart does as a defender is know what the man he’s guarding is going to do in the moment, in the fraction of a moment before, he does. He knows the body of his opponent better than his opponent knows it himself. How else does a man who stands six-foot-three block a shot at the rim by Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is six-eleven with a seven-three wingspan? If I appreciate what Smart does it’s in part because I can almost understand it. The thing about being socialized as a woman is you’re never not aware of your body. It’s not the reason I started watching the NBA but it’s part of why I kept watching: ten men, on hardwood, constantly aware of theirs.

Smart’s shot selection, it’s true, occasionally leaves something to be desired. When he launches a three, instinctively, I hold my breath. Not high-percentage, the wrong-handed, off-balance, glass-bouncer. After the basket, Smart looked at his own hand in mock awe, drove his right index finger into the meat of his left palm for emphasis. A teammate, Jaylen Brown, grabbed Smart’s wrist, his eyes wide, his mouth slightly open in a performance of astonishment. Beneath the performance, actual astonishment. Not high-percentage, and for that reason, both a bad idea and the best. Marcus Smart, on offense and defense: a minor, necessary miracle.

Miranda Popkey is a writer based in Massachusetts.