- Chris Broussard, NBA analyst
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- On the mic, they call him "Joe Beast," because he flows with the type of East Coast swag they love in the birthplace of hip-hop. (At least that's what he told me.) But Joe Smith was also a monster on the court Friday at The Palace -- and the Cleveland Cavaliers needed every bit of animal he had in him.
On a night when the Cavs' complacency and Detroit's heart combined to create a surprisingly competitive contest, "Joe Beast" turned in his most productive postseason performance in years, recording 19 points and 10 rebounds in 19 minutes to help Cleveland to a 79-68 victory in Game 3.
Smith's impact was lost on no one, and afterward, coach Mike Brown gathered his team in the locker room and gave props to his 33-year-old reserve.
"I said in front of the team, 'Way to go, old man,'" Brown said. "And the players jumped on me right away and reminded me that he's not an old man, he's 'Joe Beast.'"
We're not joking about this "Joe Beast" stuff. In a league full of wannabe emcees, Smith is the real thing. In December, he released a disc titled "The Beginning," and his hip-hop ode to the Cavs, "One Goal," has become the club's playoff anthem this spring. The song blared through The Q's sound system as the players warmed up before the first two games of this series.
"Z the president, 'Bron James the king, and Anderson Varejao, they call him the wild thing "
Detroit won't hear the Beast spit any more this season -- unless they purchase his CD -- because obviously this thing is over, not likely to return to Cleveland for a Game 5. The Cavs hold a 3-0 lead heading into Sunday's Game 4, and I wouldn't be surprised if there were a collection of brooms in the luggage compartment of the Cavaliers' bus.
Though Smith is truly nice on the mic, he's not giving up his day job. Though he's played for 12 teams (8 different franchises) in his 14 seasons, this is the first time he's had a legitimate shot at winning a ring. He's having the time of his life.
"From the locker room to the floor, practice, whatever it is -- it's the most fun I've had," said Smith, who topped his career playoff high by two points. "We enjoy each other, and we have a chemistry that carries over to the floor. Whether we're joking with each other, dancing with each other, we enjoy each other."
Smith, of course, was a Cavalier once before, joining the team in a trade deadline deal last season and playing well for them in the playoffs. Over the summer, he was traded to Oklahoma City in a three-team deal that brought Mo Williams to Cleveland.
The Cavaliers hated losing Smith, both for his play and for his locker room leadership, and they were overjoyed when they were able to sign him after he was bought out by Oklahoma City in March.
He's been a godsend, giving Cleveland a viable replacement when Ben Wallace was injured late in the regular season. Now that Wallace is healthy enough to play, he and Smith fill out a strong four-man frontcourt rotation as backups to Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. The differences between Smith and Wallace allow Cleveland to throw varied looks at opponents, Wallace providing brute force and Smith spreading the floor with his jump shot.
And he was needed Friday. With Mo Williams and Delonte West combining for just four points on 1-for-18 shooting, Smith's marksmanship -- 6-of-8 field goals -- saved the Cavs.
A picture of versatility, he scored from all over the floor. A stretch early in the fourth quarter, when he took over the game, illustrated his wide-ranging attack. With 9:50 to play, he sank a 3-pointer to give the Cavs the lead for good, 61-58. Less than 40 seconds later, he hit a heavily contested layup, and then followed that with a 17-footer. All and all, he had 7 points and 3 rebounds in 6 pivotal fourth-quarter minutes.
Smith's trey was his second of the series. That's a lot for a guy who had made just 29 throughout his career, none in the postseason. Brown said he just discovered Smith's newfound range a month ago.
"Our assistant coach John Kuester came up to me and said, 'Joe can shoot the 3,"' Brown recalled. "I laughed at Kue and he said: 'No, no, he's been practicing. He can shoot the 3 in the corner.' I said, 'No, he can't.'"
Smith, who averaged only 6.5 points for Cleveland this season, is actually tied with Ilgauskas as the Cavs' second-leading scorer in this series. His previous playoff high of 17 points also came against Detroit, back in 2004, when he was a Milwaukee Buck.
"I don't think it's anything about the Pistons," said Smith, who's averaging 12.3 points and 6 rebounds in this series. "It's just a hunger that I have right now for what we can achieve and what we can accomplish this year. To be on a team that's close to doing something special with what we have here, it's going to pay off. I've been around a while, so I understand what it takes to win at this level right now."
Smith's double-double was a stunner, considering he had had just one double-double all season. But the Pistons said they weren't caught off guard by his breakout performance.
"It wasn't surprising at all," Detroit forward Antonio McDyess said. "He can shoot the ball. People just forget about [the Cavs'] role players because of LeBron. But I have so much respect for that guy that nothing he does surprises me."
Not even his rapping.
Chris Broussard is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.
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