As a Rockets fan, if I were to tell you that the fate of the entire series was balanced on Josh Smith‘s shoulders, how terrified would you be? Smith is undoubtedly the X-factor, the wild card, the player that has the ability to change the game, for better or for worse. I’ve seen the paralyzing fear that takes over Rockets fans faces when Smith brings up the ball, the groans of disappointment when he bricks a three, the head scratching when he seems to make one foolish play after another. On the flip side of that coin, I’ve also witnessed Houston fans yell in excitement as Smith throws a perfect lob to Dwight Howard, pump their fist as Smith plays stellar defense and nod approvingly as he comes up with a huge block. Josh Smith giveth and Josh Smith taketh away.
In this series, if Smith steps up the Rockets will have a great chance at winning. He’s truly the most significant factor for the Rockets*, mainly because you don’t know what you’re getting out of him on a night-to-night basis. If Smith does more of what he did right and less of what he did wrong in the first game, Houston could very well make it to the NBA Finals.
*The most significant factor now might be the health of Dwight Howard. Sans Howard, the Rockets will not win the series.
Let’s take a look at what Smith needs to keep on doing this postseason. On offense, he has gotten more comfortable in the Rockets’ scheme, making quick decisions when he catches the ball. Early on in the Rockets-Smith relationship, head coach Kevin McHale implored Smith to just go out there and play basketball, and Smith has really come on and responded.
McHale recognizes how important Smith is to the Houston offense, and will always look to get him and Howard going early on in the game to open up looks for the rest of the team. Many wonder why Smith launches so many threes for the Rockets (four attempts a game), but it’s all part of the game plan. Just the threat of Smith shooting the three draws out his defender to the perimeter, giving more space for Harden to drive and create. Howard’s man down low won’t leave him, otherwise it’ll be an easy dunk, so Harden gets the one-on-one opportunity that he thrives in and precisely the looks that the Rockets try to manufacture.
Smith is shooting 36.5 percent from beyond the arc this postseason (31.6 percent on the season and a lifetime perimeter shooting percentage of 28.9 percent), and McHale looks at him making a three as a bonus*. What’s much more important is how Smith manipulates the defense and creates opportunities just by his mere presence.
*Phil Jackson employed the same philosophy with Shaq—he expected Shaq to miss both free throws every time, and saw it as a pleasant surprise when he made one or even two.
Smith is a gifted passer, with the ability to recognize mismatches on switches and find the open man. The Warriors kept switching the 4-5 screens between Howard and Smith, and Smith was able to find Howard posting on the smaller Draymond Green or make the right play and take Andrew Bogut to the hole and rise up over him for the 10-15 footer. By virtue of being tall and athletic, Smith is able to make passes that few other players (let alone power forwards) are able to make. In this clip, Smith is able to see over the double-team of Andre Iguodala and Green and fire up a pass over the seven-foot Bogut to Harden in the corner for the open three:
Smith is great on defense, bringing his elite shot-blocking ability (career average of 2.0 blocks per game) and his underrated team defense. Smith understands just how much he can sag off his man and help on drives, and his length plus his athleticism allows him to guard centers to slashing point guards. Look at how Smith rotates and uses his length to bother the 6’11 Festus Ezeli:
Smith contained Stephen Curry on a couple of switches, which is where I really saw how his foot speed and length make Smith a great defender.
On the negative side, Smith needs to give up the rock to a primary ball handler and not turn the ball over in semi-transition situations. In these two semi-transition opportunities, Smith tries to do too much and turns the ball over because he tries to make passes that he normally doesn’t make. Smith is capable of making great passes, but his teammates aren’t expecting him to be a slash-and-kick player, and when Smith gets caught up in the air is when he really puts himself in trouble:
In full transition, one of Smith’s best attributes is his ability to lead the fast break, much like Blake Griffin. Smith is athletic and can finish at the rim as well as make great passes to find the open man, either down low or spotting up at the three-point line.
The last thing for Smith (and the Rockets as a whole) to do is be better at exploiting matchups. They must exploit these mismatches relentlessly. Smith is bigger than Green and Dwight has a strength advantage over Bogut. Those are must-win matchups. When they switch on a 4-5 screen, it’s unacceptable for the entire Rockets team to do anything but feed either big until either a double comes or they score. Look at this clip. Down nine with two minutes left in the game, Smith has post position ON THE BLOCK with HARRISON BARNES ON HIM. That has to be an immediate red flag for Smith to simply turn and shoot. I was screaming at the TV, “JOSH JUST SHOOT IT HE IS TOO SMALL!”:
Four Things I Loved
1. Kevin McHale sending out Nick Johnson as a team captain to meet with the referees. (Johnson has only played 30 minutes total in the playoffs this year.) That blatant disrespect wasn’t missed by Curry, who walked away with a look on his face like Is this dude serious right now?:
2. Curry has been recognizing mismatches on him all season, but it’s still great to see when an opposing big gets unfortunately switched onto him. It’s like the pack of lions singling out the weak gazelle, licking their chops. Clint Capela, welcome to the NBA Playoffs:
3. I especially loved Jet trying to get in the head of Curry after nailing a three. Unfortunately for the 37-year-old Terry, Steph—wait for it – jetted around a couple of screens and nailed a wide open three-pointer that Terry was just too slow to maneuver around:
4. Finally, I’ll always have a soft spot for Mark Jackson and his catch phrases, so without further ado, I’ll leave this outro here for you to enjoy: