So what's the bigger surprise: That the Hawks have made it to the NBA's Final Four or that Josh Smith has reached the same previously unfamiliar height?
Smith, the former polarizing Hawks' forward whose NBA career seemed in doubt after being released by Detroit in December, has become a valuable core player for the Houston Rockets. Honest. Smith started for the third straight game Sunday, and the Rockets won for the third straight game. They rallied for a 3-1 series deficit to the Los Angeles Clippers, winning Sunday 113-100 to reach the Western Conference finals.
Smith's totals Sunday: 15 points, a rebound and a blocked shot. (The Rockets are 6-1 in the playoffs when he scores 10 or more points.)
The Hawks didn't try to keep Smith when he became an unrestricted free agent. Detroit paid him to go away after signing him to a regrettable four-year, $54 million contract in free agency. Why? Because neither team believed it could succeed in the playoffs with him. The Hawks never got past the second round with Smith, but then they never got past the second round with anybody before this season.
Smith, perhaps humbled by his exit in Detroit, has not caused any problems in Houston. He averaged 12 points, 6 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.2 blocks in 25 minutes in 55 games, mostly off the bench. In the last three playoff games, all won by Houston, he totaled 43 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and three blocks in about 70 minutes.
Also, he was 7 for 14 on three-point shots.
Here's some visual evidence of Smith's contributions when he scored 19 points in Game 6:
So how's this for a scenario: Hawks vs. Josh Smith in the NBA finals? (Nevermind that Houston will be an underdog to Golden State and Cleveland will be favored over the Hawks in the respective conference finals.) The Hawks already faced Joe Johnson in the first-round series against Brooklyn and Johnson was booed seemingly every time he touched the ball in Philips Arena.
During his nine seasons in Atlanta, Smith could be either the best or worst player on the court, sometimes both in the same quarter. General manager Danny Ferry showed no interest in re-signing him. In Detroit, Smith had a dreadful first season, was benched by former coach Maurice Cheeks and took exception with Cheeks' assertion that he wasn't giving a full effort: "It's an honor for me to play, you know what I'm saying? So when anybody challenges -- or anything about the fact that, you know, about me not wanting to play -- then I take real offense to it."
New coach Stan Van Gundy predictably didn't take to Smith, either, and the Pistons waived the forward on Dec. 22. They're paying the balance of his contract. Houston signed him four days later for an exception of only $2 million. It's turned out to be a pretty good investment. Who knew?