Commentary

Josh Smith better when not 'Smoove'

Originally Published: May 9, 2011
By Michael Wallace | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- I'll come right out and admit it: I had the Atlanta Hawks quitting in this game.

I figured, down 2-1 against the team with the league's best record and having given back home-court advantage after stealing it with a Game 1 victory, the Hawks would just mail in the rest of this series and accept their routine place as second-round playoff fodder.

In addition to Augusta, semifinal round ousters in the NBA postseason by the Hawks have become Georgia's other springtime tradition unlike any other. All the signs were there before and early into Sunday's stunning 100-88 victory over the Chicago Bulls in Game 4 to even the series at 2-2.

There was star player Joe Johnson still privately bickering Sunday about how the offense had gone away from him in the Game 3 loss that pushed the Hawks into a 2-1 series hole.

There was wannabe star Josh Smith overheard venting to teammates after Sunday's shootaround that majority of the blame for losses -- from media, fans and/or coaches -- too frequently falls on his shoulders.

There was second-year point guard Jeff Teague, in the middle of the first quarter Sunday night, shouting back at an assistant coach after he was taken out of the game, presumably for a mistake he didn't believe was his fault.

[+] EnlargeJosh Smith
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireJosh Smith had 23 points, 16 rebounds and eight assists in Atlanta's Game 4 win.

But most of all, there was Derrick Rose and the top-seeded Bulls, refusing to fade despite the Hawks coming out with more energy, effective adjustments and an emotional boost from the home crowd.

At some point during a chaotic timeout early in the second quarter -- after Hawks coach Larry Drew exchanged heated words with Smith as Johnson sat about two seats removed from the huddle and hung his head -- this inconsistent and fragile team had come to a fork in the road.

As he reflected on that moment hours later, Drew remembers having one thought.

"Where would my team be if things had gone the other way?" Drew said. "That's the million-dollar question. One thing I know is we have responded when our backs are against the wall."

Some strange things would happen soon after the Hawks emerged from that huddle.

Johnson started moving the ball, trusting the offense and getting his shots. Teague regained his confidence and, yet again, stared down Rose in the second half. Al Horford would finally show up and join the series already in progress.

But none of those developments were bigger than The Transformation.

The good Josh Smith kicked the bad Josh Smith out of Philips Arena just in time for the Hawks to save themselves from themselves and make this a series again, one that is becoming increasingly more difficult for the Bulls to put away and prepare for the Eastern Conference finals.

If the Hawks refuse to cooperate with their own coaches at times, what makes you think they'll comply with any sort of outside expectations and simply go away in this series? Instead, these knuckleheads are knocking heads with the Bulls and head back to Chicago for Game 5 on Tuesday far from finished.

And the much-maligned Smith is the reason why they fought their way into this position Sunday. Through three quarters, "J-Smoove," Smith's nickname and alter ego, had missed 11 of his 15 shots from the field and seemed to have neither a conscience nor remorse for jacking up the same ill-advised jumpers that his coach repeatedly has asked him to stop taking.

And then, in the fourth, J-Smoove left the building and Josh Smith finished the game. Same body. Same uniform. Same sweaty headband. Same striking resemblance to rapper The Game.

But different mentality. Different results. Smoove was awful, booed mercilessly by his hometown crowd with his father sitting courtside. Smith was cheered and revered the moment he appeared and took over the fourth by taking the ball to the basket.

Smith scored 11 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter and also added 16 rebounds, eight assists, two blocks, a steal and some stifling defense on Rose late as the Hawks closed the game on a 16-4 run. The Hawks really want to get rid of Smoove, and they almost did at the February trade deadline.

But this Smith dude that showed up in the fourth is the reason they keep holding on to him and continue to hold out hope that he'll eventually mature into his better half on at least a semi-regular basis.

"I just tried to stick with it and stay aggressive," Smith said after what, by far, was his best game of a series in which he shot just 35.9 percent and averaged 12.7 points entering Sunday. "I did a good job of not settling. I just stuck with it and had the game I had tonight. I knew this rut wasn't going to last."

And in just that instant, in typical Smith fashion, he let Smoove out to say a few words at the dais.

"When people who don't understand the game or know the game [criticize me], it really doesn't faze me," Smoove responded when Smith was asked how he handles the terse reaction from fans to his struggles on the court. "We got the win. That's all that matters."

Atlanta has been coping with this Smoove-Smith identity crisis for years now. He's a native son who is a microcosm of his franchise. The Hawks, like Smith, have shown for two series now just how talented and filled with potential they are. And, just like Smoove, just when the expectations start to form, they seem to revel in showing the warts in their game and the frustrating lack of focus that got Mike Woodson fired after a 50-win season and often now leaves Drew shaking his head in bewilderment.

But this time, Drew didn't wait to see how his team would react once Sunday's game started. He took it upon himself to shake things up and agitate his players to make sure they were on edge going in.

When he learned of Johnson's gripes about a perceived diminished role in the offense in Games 2 and 3, Drew talked about how other superstars in the league find other ways to be effective and aggressive.

"A real pro would look you in the eye and say, 'Coach, you're right. I've got to do this better,'" Drew said during a candid moment after Sunday morning's team shootaround.

When asked during that same conversation if he had sat down and talked with Smoove-Smith about taking all of those bad shots, Drew said he not only repeatedly discusses the issue in individual meetings but that he also breaks out game film and creative charts to back up his case.

Sometimes, it's just hard to get through to Smith when Smoove shows up to the office.

"Now is no time to be experimenting with your limitations," Drew said regarding what his message has been to Smoove-Smith during those heart-to-headband talks.

Drew is not alone in trying to get through on this front.

"When Josh is playing that way, attacking the basket and making plays, that's the Josh Smith we need," Horford said. "We've been saying that to him every day. Now, it's just to the point where we hope he goes out and does it. And he did it. We were kind of waiting for it, and he showed it tonight."

Even his Hawks teammates know they're a different beast in those moments when Smith enters the game and decides to leave Smoove on the bench. He becomes the X factor capable of tipping the balance firmly in Atlanta's favor on most nights.

Sunday night was exhibit A, B and C.

First, the Hawks beat the Bulls with balance as Johnson, Smith and Horford each scored at least 20 to lead five players in double figures.

Secondly, they won with solid defense, holding the Bulls to only 41 percent shooting and limiting them to only two field goals over the final 4:31 of the game.

And thirdly, they also came out on top in the poise department. It was Chicago that came apart at the end, with six turnovers in the fourth quarter. The Bulls also had an honorary Chris Webber mental lapse when coach Tom Thibodeau was assessed a technical foul with 18 seconds left after a timeout was called that Chicago didn't have.

Perhaps it was an act of defiance and protest on Thibodeau's part after some questionable calls went against the Bulls late in the game.

Smith knows all about that sort of defiance to make a point.

Smoove defiantly shoots those jumpers because he believes he's hurting the team if he doesn't take those open shots. Then Smith has to clean up the mess with a resounding blocked shot, thunderous dunk or nifty pass in transition.

For Atlanta, it's been a tale of two Joshes not even Charles Dickens can narrate.

For his part, Drew said he will bring Josh into the office again Monday and show him the tape of Sunday night's performance, with Smoove starring in the first half and Smith playing a lead role and becoming the hero in the end.

"Josh knows," Drew said. "When he rebounds, runs the floor and pushes the ball, he has an ability ... a very unique ability. It sank in a little bit."

Smith can keep the Hawks in this series and possibly help them engineer an upset.

Smoove might end up sending them on vacation.

Smith understood the situation well enough after Sunday's game to say that he needed to "just make plays ... do the things at [small forward] that [Luol] Deng does."

And then, Smoove seized the moment again.

"The media tries to T.O. me," Smoove said in a reference to controversial NFL receiver Terrell Owens, comparing the level of perceived negative criticism they receive.

A moment later, Hawks media relations director Arthur Triche stepped in to cut off the postgame interview just as another question was being asked.

No sense in allowing Smoove to get the final word on a night Smith saved for the Hawks.

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