Joe Johnson is the Hawks’ four-time All-Star, their highest-paid player and the one guy on the roster who spoke openly the other day about feeling he needed to prove himself as one of the game’s elite players by carrying his team in crucial moments in these playoffs, if necessary.
All of that is accurate. But it doesn’t diminish the impact Josh Smith can have on a team. We saw again why Tuesday night.
He is forever the Hawks’ X-factor because so few can do what he does, which, by the way, is everything. The only comparable might be a guy named LeBron.
As Al Horford said when asked about key performers for the Hawks in this postseason, “Joe is one of those players who lives for the big moment — he’s our go-to guy. But I think Josh is the biggest key for us. He gets everybody going. He makes things happen. When he’s rebounding the ball, scoring the ball, he’s the guy who makes us go.”
During the day, it was announced that Smith had finished second in voting as the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, behind only Dwight Howard, his close friend going back to pre-school. (Imagine the Nerf hoop battles at that school.)
In the evening, he showed us the rest of his game. He made his first six shots. He passed. He rebounded. He blocked shots. He dove on the floor for loose balls.
The Hawks defeated the Bucks 96-86 at Philips Arena. For the first time since 1970, they have won the first two games of a best-of-seven series. And if Smith keeps playing like this, this thing will be over after Game 4 in Milwaukee on Monday. He just missed a triple-double: 21 points (nine of 11 shooting), 14 rebounds, nine assists, two steals and two blocks.
On a night of two other great performances — Horford with 20 points and 10 rebounds; Johnson with 27 points — Smith stood out. It’s very simple: When he plays like this, the Hawks can beat anybody. Bucks. Magic. Cavaliers. Lakers.
“If you think back to six years ago, Josh Smith has come a long way,” coach Mike Woodson said. “He has worked over the years, and he has developed into a player — a player who I thought should’ve made the All-Star team this year. There’s nothing he can’t do on the floor.”
Smith was beaming afterward. He cracked a joke when asked about the near triple-double, saying, “Marvin [Williams] let me down,” by missing a shot that would’ve given Smith his 10th assist.
In the big picture, he knew it wasn’t that big of a deal.
“It was my night, and I just thank my teammates for going to me like they were,” he said. “I just felt great all night.
“I really just want to stay active. On the defensive end, I want to be the tone-setter. Al was has been terrific helping me out with that, too, clogging up the paint. Offensively, I just took my time in the post and made some good post moves, and I was able to finish.”
We saw early just how good the Hawks can be when everything is clicking. Horford was an early offensive force inside. Mike Bibby set up Smith and Horford for alley-oop plays. Smith and Johnson blocked shots on consecutive Milwaukee possessions, leading to baskets at the other end and an early 10-point lead at 22-12.
Just as in Game 1 against the Bucks, when the Hawks became “stagnant” (Jamal Crawford’s word) in the third quarter, they began standing around on offense again. If there is one thing we’ve learned about Milwaukee, it’s that the team doesn’t need an invitation to come back. The Bucks went on a 12-2 run to go up 32-30.
But for most of the night, they were playing catch-up — to the Hawks in general and Smith in particular.
In one five-minute stretch of the third quarter, Smith hit a jump shot, set up Williams for a driving layup, dropped in a little baby hook, slammed home a rebound of a Williams miss and drove the baseline for a layup. That gave the Hawks a 16-point lead at 69-53.
That pretty much was it. Milwaukee plays hard. But if the Hawks play like this, the Bucks can’t compete. If Smith plays like this, they’re not alone.