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Marcus Smart on sleepless nights, lessons learned, and how the Celtics can take the final step

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 6/28/2022 Adam Himmelsbach
Marcus Smart wishes he hadn't been slowed by an ankle injury suffered in the Eastern Conference finals. © Jim Davis/Globe Staff Marcus Smart wishes he hadn't been slowed by an ankle injury suffered in the Eastern Conference finals.

WESTFORD — Nearly two weeks have passed since the Warriors popped bottles of champagne in the bowels of TD Garden following their Game 6 Finals win over the Celtics. Boston held a 2-1 lead in that series and was ahead late in Game 4 before everything unraveled; the Celtics lost three games in a row for the first time since December.

So far, moving on hasn’t been easy for veteran point guard Marcus Smart.

“I have moments where it’s late at night and I can’t sleep,” he said, “and all of a sudden I’m thinking about those games and what we could’ve done differently.”

He said he thinks about what might have been different if center Robert Williams hadn’t torn his meniscus in late March, an injury that left Williams hobbled throughout the postseason. He thinks about what might have been different if he hadn’t sprained his ankle in Game 3 of the conference finals against the Heat, an injury that still lingers.

“And, I wish we didn’t run out of gas,” Smart said Tuesday, sitting in a quiet corner of a gym following his two-day youth basketball academy at the Mill Works sports complex. “Obviously, those series we went through to get to the Finals were so brutal. But, I wouldn’t change a thing about it. You hate to find your lessons in defeat, but sometimes you have to see rain before a rainbow.

“I lay in bed thinking about our execution. We had so many damn turnovers, man, it was ridiculous. Unfortunately, that’s what we’d been doing the last couple of series. We flirted with it and it finally backfired and it bit us in our butts.”

Whenever Smart starts getting bogged down thinking about a missed opportunity, though, he reminds himself to appreciate accomplishments, and the fact that he just completed a season he will never forget. He became the first guard to be named NBA Defensive Player of the Year since Gary Payton in 1996, and he is proud that after being handed the keys to the offense by first-year coach Ime Udoka, he did not let the team down.

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“I think I proved a little bit everything,” Smart said. “I hear the talks about ‘He’s not a true point guard’ and this and that. ‘They need a star point guard.’

“We’ve had star point guards, and yet this so-called non-point guard is the only one that’s led them to the Finals. I think that right there says enough. I don’t really need to say too much more. I think everybody sees and understands, finally, the person I really am, and what I can do given the opportunity.”

Smart chuckled and said he was not surprised that he continues to hear chatter about whether he is the right point guard for this offense. He said questions about whether he truly fits have followed him ever since he was drafted in 2014.

“And, I’m still here,” he said. “I’m still the longest-tenured Celtic. So for me, I take it as a compliment. It means you’re valued pretty high, and if your name is talked about, people want you.

“But I don’t pay much attention. I know what I bring to the table, and that’s what I focus on, what I bring to this team. We’ll figure everything else out. [President of basketball operations Brad Stevens] is great at what he does and he’s going to figure out the right pieces to make sure we stay going in the right direction.”

The Celtics’ options will be somewhat limited when free agency opens Thursday evening. They have a $6.3 million mid-level exception to dangle, and they can acquire players using some hefty trade exceptions, including one worth $17.1 million.

Smart said he would like the opportunity to offer input to Stevens and the rest of the front office, but he stressed that his primary concern is getting healthy and prepared for next year.

“I think, for us, we have a lot of power,” Smart said. “It’s just finding the balance. It’s kind of hard to tell you what we need when we just made the Finals.

“Now, obviously, we might need something. At this moment, I couldn’t tell you what that is. I’m sure Brad and his staff will do a good job of finding what we need and trying to get it. If not, then try to do everything we can with what we have.”

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Smart doesn’t think substantial changes are in order, but he hopes that the Celtics’ resurgence convinces some experienced players seeking veteran minimum deals that they could provide one of the best paths to a title.

“I think over the years we got a bad rep in Boston for free agents, for older vets wanting to come,” he said. “I think this year really opened a lot of people’s eyes and showed what we can do, how this team is. We’re a team. It’s all one. I think that opened a lot of people’s eyes to maybe give it a shot in Boston.”

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