When we speak of all the things Josh Smith can do, Saturday’s Game 3 is what we mean. On a night when losing would have equaled certain elimination, he scored 14 points, took six rebounds, made six assists and limited Paul George, the star of Games 1 and 2, to four baskets. Smith wasn’t the statistical standout – Al Horford had 26 points and 16 rebounds – but he was surely the Hawks’ MVP.
Sometimes it seems as if we’ve spoken of no other Hawk for almost a decade, but Game 3 offered yet another reason why the Josh Smith conversation remains ongoing. When he’s good, he’s really good. (And he has been really good rather often, or else we’d never have noticed him in the first place.) When he’s not, we ask why. Then we point to the 3-pointers and say, “That’s why.”
If Smith had never discovered the 3-point shot, he’d be one of the most admired players in the sport. Mike Woodson had all but disabused him of the urge to launch; in his final season under his first professional coach, Smith tried only seven treys. In three seasons since succeeding Woodson, Larry Drew has allowed Smith to keep doing the thing he does worst, and that has undercut the greater effect.
Think about it. Has there ever been a player of such skill and such seasoning about whom there remains such a kerfuffle over shot selection?
Under Drew, Smith has hoisted 464 treys in 219 regular-season games. Contrary to popular belief, he hasn’t missed every one. His 3-point percentage those three seasons is 30.2 – good enough to make him think he’ll make the next one, not nearly good enough to offset the drain on his overall game. At shooting long jumpers, Smith is just another guy. At everything else, he’s special.
To watch him posting low Saturday and spinning past for deft flips and fierce dunks was to ask, not for the first or even the five hundredth time, “Why does a guy who’s so dangerous in the lane ever stray?” (Not coincidentally, Smith’s best work under Drew came last season, when Horford missed 55 games and the Hawks had no other post-up options.) To see Smith run the floor and defend the perimeter and pass out of double-teams was to enjoy one of the sport’s finest all-around players on a showcase night.
Afterward Smith would speak of his nuanced performance as appealing to “the people who know basketball,” and that’s the great riddle of Josh Smith. Contrary to popular belief, he knows basketball. (If he didn’t, he wouldn’t defend and pass the way he does.) He just can’t resist those jump shots.
Smith again: “I’ve got a very unique skill-set, and I work and critique myself as much as possible.”
And here’s where the riddle yields to resignation. As good as Smith has been, as great as he might yet become, these could well be his final days as a Hawk. He had all but resigned himself to being traded in February, but that didn’t happen. Soon the choice will be his: To stay in the city where we keep harping on those jump shots or to take his many and splendid other talents to new environs?
“It is a big decision,” he said Saturday night, “but it’ll be made this summer. All I can do now is try and focus on this series and getting to the second round.”
Smith is 27 but seems much older. There was little of the post-victory exuberance, once a major part of his immense charm, on display Saturday. He’s more guarded now. Playing pro basketball in his hometown hasn’t been easy, and the never-ending debate about his true worth has left scar tissue. You wonder, again not for the first time, if he wouldn’t be happier elsewhere.
(About that charm: Back in February, a certain writer expressed the belief that Smith wouldn’t be traded. Smith smiled and said: “You’re saying that because you like me.” And I do. I like him very much.)
Had the Hawks lost Game 3, Monday’s Game 4 might have been the much-discussed Josh Smith’s last act as an Atlanta Hawk. The thought, he said, hadn’t occurred: “I really haven’t had a sit-down moment to think about things like that.”
At least for the moment, the Hawks again have life. They have life because Josh Smith had himself one of those games that reminded us why it is we’re still talking about Josh Smith.