Late in the second quarter of the Boston Celtics' 110-88 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday, Marcus Smart dove for a loose ball. Notice I didn't say anything about Smart landing on Stephen Curry's leg, which he did, because that was merely an unfortunate, unintended byproduct of a legitimate and, frankly, commendable show of effort.
Curry limped to the locker room and didn't return. The Warriors say Curry has a sprained foot ligament and will be out "indefinitely." That's pretty vague. "Out indefinitely" always raises concern. If this is somehow a serious injury that keeps Curry out, say, a month, maybe more, now we're into the playoffs and the Warriors might have just fallen out of the title-contention conversation. Let's hope that's not the case.
Either way, Smart didn't do anything wrong.
Before we go any further, here's the play.
Steph came up limping after fighting for a loose ball pic.twitter.com/hOjIvE2f8k— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) March 17, 2022
I want you to rewatch that video, and pay close attention to where not just Curry but also Klay Thompson is positioned when Smart breaks into his dive. They are both closer to the ball than Smart. His diving for that ball wasn't some action of ill intent; it was one of efficiency. He had to cover more ground in less time to have a shot gaining possession, which he did. He beat two closer players to the ball. This is a play every coach in the world would celebrate ... except the one who coaches Stephen Curry.
After the game, Steve Kerr called it a "dangerous" play.
Here you can see Kerr giving Smart his thoughts shortly after the incident.
The interaction between Marcus Smart and Steve Kerr after Steph Curry was headed for the locker room. pic.twitter.com/y0NbQ20Upp— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) March 17, 2022
"I thought it was a dangerous play," Kerr said after the game. "I thought Marcus dove into Steph, and that's what I was upset about. A lot of respect for Marcus. He's a hell of a player, a gamer, a competitor. I coached him in the World Cup a few summers ago. We talked after the game and we're good. But I thought it was a dangerous play."
Of course Kerr is going to be upset. His star player got hurt. But objectively speaking, it was actually Curry's own passivity that put him in harm's way. Watch again, and you'll clearly see that Smart launched before Curry arrived at the ball, which means that Curry showed up in Smart's landing space, not the other way around.
If Curry had already been positioned over the ball and Smart had just flown recklessly into his leg, yeah, that would be a dirty play. But how could Smart have been angling for Curry when he dove directly at the ball? Can he help Curry showing up at the point of contact at the last second because he took the slower route?
The bottom line is there are two kinds of players when it comes to pursuing a loose ball: those who casually bend over or reach for it, and those who get on the floor for it. Smart gets on the floor. Always. It's what makes him the player he is.
Ime Udoka on Steve Kerr and Marcus Smart talking: "The play they were talking about was completely legal. One guy reached for it, one guy dove for it. There wasn't anything there to complain about. I told Marcus not to worry about it."— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) March 17, 2022
That's not to say Curry and Thompson aren't hustle guys; they are. They get on the floor plenty. Both of those guys play extremely hard. But in this particular case, Smart played harder. And he got rewarded with a possession. He secured that ball in time to sit up and make a pass to Jayson Tatum, who in turn re-fumbled the ball.
At that point, more hell broke loose, and here's where Smart did register a dirty play. Below is the full sequence, with the Warriors ultimately regaining possession via Tatum's fumble and breaking out in transition, where Smart, trailing the break, delivers what is clearly an intentional, awkward kick to Thompson as he's going for a layup.
The Warriors staff was upset with both of these Marcus Smart plays. First one was a roll up of Steph Curry's leg that has him currently in the locker room, second ruled a flagrant on Klay Thompson. Kerr was telling refs to review both plays, mimicking a leg chop to officials. pic.twitter.com/6edSJxQszv— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) March 17, 2022
Now that is a pretty cheap play. Nobody was really going to get hurt, but if you throw your foot at someone in mid-air, you deserve the "dirty" label. And honestly, that's part of the outrage over Smart's play involving Curry. He has made some shady plays in the past, and reputations precede players. There are some technical fouls that Draymond Green gets where he didn't really do or say anything terrible; his hothead reputation robbed him of the benefit of the doubt.
Perhaps it's the case with Smart. People think he's a dirty player already, so they're quick to judge. But in this case, it's too quick. Look at the play. It's not dirty. It's pure hustle. Smart won the possession, and with that kind of aggressive, defensive mindset all night, the Celtics won the game. It's unfortunately that Curry got hurt, but Smart didn't do anything wrong.