It was all there. Everything you’ve wanted. Everything you’ve envisioned on the other side of potential. Everything that can’t be illustrated in a few spliced highlights of two flying Wallenda dunks and a rebound.
Intensity. Enjoyment. Maturity.
Let me repeat that last one: maturity.
“It felt perfect,” Josh Smith said Monday. “Like a perfect day.”
It’s impossible to accurately project what the Hawks’ opening-game dismembering of the Miami Heat means for the rest of this playoff series or the post-season. But this much is certain: If Josh Smith continues to run and attack and defend like he did Sunday night, Miami has no chance in this series and Cleveland has something to worry about in the next one.
He scored 23 points — 17 in the first half, when the Heat was still in the game, at least theoretically. He added 10 rebounds, three steals and two assists. His weak-side defense drew praise from general manager Rick Sund. And he probably drove half the Miami roster to lithium.
“He was just running right by us,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
And then he began mumbling, incoherently.
Smith has been called talented but selfish, talented but lazy, talented but immature. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that if he had gone to college for four years, this would be his rookie season.
Instead, he transitioned directly from the prom to the slam dunk contest.
“I’m a long way from [the end of] the growth process,” he said, and the important thing there is he’s going in the right direction.
Every team has shooters. Every team has playmakers and defenders and rebounders. The reason Sunday was so significant: Because every team doesn’t have a player like Josh Smith.
As Al Horford said: “It’s hard to contain us as a team when he’s playing at that level. We feed off of that.”
So this is what the other side of the rainbow looks like.
Smith is a native Atlantan. He’s also a five-year Hawk, and therefore has seniority on the roster. In that sense, he has suffered more and witnessed more carnage than anybody else.
He laughed when told that, and then acknowledged the obvious.
“This means a lot to me,” he said. “Being from here, raised here — you know, we really haven’t had a lot of teams we can brag about. Definitely not in my years growing up. This feels good. It’s more than about me because I’m a part of a team Atlanta can brag about. If you go from the bottom to top, you really cherish it more than if you come into the league and you’re winning 50 games compared to if you win 12 or 13.”
This is everything you’ve wanted, everything you’ve envisioned – and nothing like what seemed likely six weeks ago. Smith’s game had nose-dived, the team was fighting consistency problems and it all culminated in the 23-year-old being benched in the second half of a game at Charlotte by coach Mike Woodson.
It wasn’t the first time the two had clashed. But the two cleared the air afterward and Smith hasn’t been the same player since. Maybe the incident was a wake-up call.
When asked what the difference has been, Smith didn’t mention the benching, only that, “I wanted to elevate my game for the playoffs.”
Regardless: nice timing.
A great performance, without the “but.”
Jeff Schultz can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), Facebook, Tweeter (SchultzAJC) or carrier pigeon (make a right off 400).