Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart isn't expecting a warm reception from Golden State Warriors fans when the NBA Finals begin Thursday largely because of his role in a play in which Warriors star Stephen Curry was injured in March.
In an interview with Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, Smart discussed the March 16 play that saw him dive for a loose ball and landed on Curry. The guard suffered a sprained ligament in his ankle and missed the final 12 games of the regular season.
Smart specifically addressed Warriors head coach Steve Kerr calling it a "dangerous" play:
"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. 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."
After winning the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award this season, Smart figures to be responsible for guarding Curry for most of the NBA Finals.
Smart's hard-nosed defense played a significant role in the Celtics outlasting the Miami Heat over seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, and it will perhaps be even more vital against an explosive offensive Golden State team.
Curry is the Warriors' go-to guy, but they also get major offensive contributions from Klay Thompson, Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins, and it is possible that Smart could see time guarding all of them at some point.
Given what happened with Curry during the regular season, Smart is well aware of the reception he will receive in San Francisco, but he isn't sweating it:
"I'm used to it. 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."
The Celtics will undoubtedly need strong play from Smart to beat a Warriors team going for their fourth championship in eight seasons, but the burden doesn't fall entirely on his shoulders.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are the Celtics' key players offensively, and after a strong Eastern Conference Finals that resulted in Tatum being named ECF MVP, they need to carry it over to the NBA Finals.
The Celtics do have an advantage over the Warriors in terms of interior play on paper, but Robert Williams III and Al Horford will have to deliver quality performances.
The Celtics are unsurprisingly underdogs against a team that has dominated the NBA for much of the past decade, but Boston's scrappy play, led by Smart, should give it a chance to pull off the upset.
Game 1 of the NBA Finals is set for Thursday at 9 p.m. ET at Chase Center.