As the Boston Celtics prepared for the 2022-23 NBA season, all signs pointed to a return to the NBA Finals.
After losing to the Golden State Warriors in six games, the Celtics returned all five starters from a team that won 26 of their final 32 regular season games during the 2021-22 regular season en route to their NBA Finals appearance.
The offseason additions of Malcolm Brogdon and Danilo Gallinari coupled with head coach Ime Udoka returning for his second season had everyone thinking about adding an 18th championship to the organization’s name.
And then it all went sideways.
Gallinari was lost for the season with a torn ACL, Udoka was suspended for the entirety of the year for “violations of team policies,” and center Robert Williams underwent arthroscopic surgery on his knee, missing the first month of the season.
The season looked to be off the rails before it even got started as Joe Mazzulla took over as head coach on an interim basis.
And then the Celtics started the year 21-5 as Jayson Tatum put himself in the conversation for league MVP.
Boston now finds itself as the two-seed in the East after winning 57 games during the regular season, one of three teams favored to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.
While it’s a chance to return to the Finals, Celtics guard Marcus Smart knows championship opportunities are not to be taken for granted.
“We have an opportunity to do something great and do something special that doesn’t come around a lot. And may not ever come around again,” Smart told Fox News Digital. “So, understanding and being very thankful for the moment we have, and understanding that we only get one shot at this. And this may be our only shot. So, let’s not take this for granted and leave everything we have on the court.”
After a turbulent offseason, Boston could have collapsed while under the microscope as their leader’s future with the organization was up in the air.
But the Celtics preached togetherness, spending time with each other off the court as they attempted to defend their Eastern Conference championship.
“We really just decided and really wanted to hone togetherness,” Smart told Fox News Digital when asked what the team did to stay together following the Udoka suspension. “As much time as we could spend together, we could. Even it was just going out to eat, or after practice, guys were just trying to spend more time with each other.”
Mazzulla proved to be more than a capable replacement, selected as the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for October and November and officially named the head coach in February.
“Surprisingly not really,” Smart said when asked if there was anything he needed to adapt to with Mazzulla as head coach. “Ime and Joe are both guys who are very tough. They’re very tough-minded guys who have played basketball.
“[Udoka and Mazzulla] Understand the game really well and isn’t going to take anything from anybody. So, we had that spirit with Ime, and with Joe it’s just intensified.”
Smart – the reigning Defensive Player of the Year – and the Celtics will now be tasked with stopping Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, an assignment that comes with its own set of problems.
“Trae’s a great player. Trae’s gonna make some tough shots,” Smart said when asked about the defensive approach to guarding Young. “You just have to continue to make everything tough for him. Just like any other great scorer or great player in the league, you have to make it as tough as possible. You’re not going to take away everything, but you take away what you can, and you make it as tough as possible.”
It’s a defensive assignment that aligns perfectly with Smart’s latest partnership, teaming up with Pronamel to launch their new Active Shield toothpaste.
“Me being a defensive player, and the Defensive Player of the Year, it’s perfect,” Smart said of the partnership. “I want a toothpaste, an oral care, that is just as tenacious at protecting my enamel as I am at protecting the basket on the court. So, Pronamel is perfect.”
“Just imagine your teeth having a bunch of little me’s around them,” he continued. “And every day, and throughout the day, me just defending, blocking, stealing everything that everyday life takes away from the enamel on your teeth.”
A turbulent year for the Celtics organization has resulted in Boston winding up right where they expected to be – with a chance to return to the NBA Finals and add an 18th banner above the floor at TD Garden arena.
For Smart, a career-long member of the organization, it’s a chance to etch his name in Celtics lore.
“To be able to play for one of the most prestigious franchises in the league, and then to not only play for them, you spend your entire career there? You don’t see that very often. You don’t see it a lot. It’s very rare,” Smart said when discussing playing his entire career in Boston.
“To be able to do that, it speaks volume about you as a player [and] as a person. And it also speaks about you as part of that culture of being a champion. Of being a part of this franchise.
“So, to be able to spend the rest of my career here would be amazing,” he continued. “And to be up there with those guys [past Celtics’ champions] saying ‘Boston all the way’ would be an amazing feeling.”
The Celtics and the Hawks play game one of their round one NBA Playoffs series Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET.