Chicago – It was one moment in a lost Game 2, but it was what we Atlantans have come to regard as a Josh Smith Moment. The Hawks had taken a rebound and pushed the ball, which came to Smith in the left corner. With 21 seconds remaining on the shot clock, he hoisted a 3-pointer.
Yes, he was open. The Hawks’ swift transition had left the Bulls scattered. But no, it wasn’t a good shot. Even had it fallen — and it didn’t — it was a lousy shot. Watching, the only response was: “What are you doing?”
A stipulation: I like Josh Smith a lot. He’s among my favorite contemporary Atlanta athletes, and there was a time when I’d have said he was my absolute fave. But I have no idea what he’s doing anymore.
To say he’s killing the Hawks would be inaccurate. They won Round 1 and are level in Round 2. But they’ve done it while their most talented player has, over the past three games, missed 29 of 39 shots. A few of those misses have come on good shots. Most have not.
After his 13-points-on-14-shots performance in Game 2, I asked Smith to describe his night. “Defensively it was pretty solid,” he said. “I struggled offensively.”
I’m not sure “struggle” is the right word. That implies a concentration of effort. Smith appeared in Game 2 as he often does — distracted and disgusted. He did his customary railing at the refs. He seemed to run hard only on occasion. He did so little for so long you wondered why he was on the floor.
But then he showed you. With the Bulls leading by 13 midway through the third quarter, Carlos Boozer rolled underneath for a layup. Smith blocked it and ran the floor — there was real running involved this time — and dunked at the other end. It was his first basket. He would score three more: Another dunk, a driving layup and a stickback.
And now you were asking, not for the first time or even the hundredth: How good would Josh Smith be if he never took a shot beyond the lane? If he could content himself with being, say, Paul Silas? (Who was a great player on championship teams, let’s recall.) Put another way, has there ever been a less effective jump shooter who persists in taking jump shots?
Granted, he’ll make a few. He made a big one near the end of Game 1. But a Smith make often hurts the Hawks more than a Smith miss because it impels him to keep shooting.
Josh Smith has it within him to be an All-Star, and he was very close to being one in 2010. He had cut back on the jump shots and, in the words of former coach Mike Woodson, had come to “understand time and score.” But to see Smith now is to view a clear regression, if not so much in scoring numbers than in impact.
Smith took seven 3-point shots in his last season under Woodson. In his first season under Larry Drew, he took — are you ready for this? — 154. (He was stationed at small forward more, which might account for some of this. Some, but not all.)
True, he made 33.1 percent of those 154 treys. Even so, are those the shots you want Smith taking? Is having such a dynamic player standing 23 feet from the goal a wise deployment. Numbers suggest not: His scoring average moved from 15.7 to 16.5 this season, but his rebounds and his assists and his blocks declined. (Turnovers, however, were up.)
As it is, Josh Smith at 25 is on his way to being one of the league’s least respected good players, and I hate that. He’s a nice guy, and he’s capable of so much more. If he would play to his strengths — and he has many — he would get his numbers without damaging his team.
With Smith at his best, the Hawks can take the Bulls. “We’ve got to be confident,” he said after Game 2, “and that team over there knows we know we can beat them.”
Then he laughed. “The media might not know. But that’s OK.”
Being a member of the media, I’m privy to press room conversations. I hear what famous writers say about the Hawks. And the first thing many of them say is, I’m sorry to report, “What is Josh Smith doing?” For that I have no answer.
By Mark Bradley