ATLANTA -- He is a basketball prototype, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound blend of size, skill and abnormal athletic ability capable of, as teammate Jamal Crawford put it, "lifting a team on his shoulders." There aren't many players in the NBA as talented as Josh Smith. There aren't many as maddening, either.
No one understands Smith's duplicity better than Atlanta, the only NBA city Smith has ever known. At his best -- which Smith was in the Hawks' 100-88 win over Chicago on Sunday -- he is virtually peerless, capable of finishing acrobatic shots at the rim on one end and erasing teammates' mistakes on the other. In the fourth quarter of this critical Game 4, Smith scored 11 points, pulled down five rebounds and dished out two assists, completing a stat stuffing 23-point, 16-rebound, eight-assist, two-block night.
"I tell him all the time, when he plays where he is flying around, showing that energy, he just makes our team totally different," said Hawks coach Larry Drew. "We don't have anyone else on our team like that."
Indeed, Smith is unique. He also requires a lot of work. After practice on Monday, Smith will wander into Drew's office and player and coach will watch film, a routine Drew established after most of Smith's notable nights. Its purpose is to show Smith what kind of player he can be when he doesn't wander out beyond the three-point line, when he doesn't let his raw emotion get the better of him.
Because occasionally they still do. No, Smith is not the same player who once waged a very public war with Mike Woodson, who jacked up 152 three-pointers in the 2006-07 season (making just 38 of them), whose sometimes boorish behavior threatened to define him. In those days, Drew said he wasn't sure Smith would ever reach his full potential.
"Honestly, yeah I did think that," said Drew, an assistant under Woodson from 2004-2010. "But we have been able to maintain open lines of communication so that when I do correct him, we are OK. The thing about Josh is he is his worst critic. I get on him and he'll jar back but I don't mind that. That tells me his heart is pumping. For the most part, he respects me. When I get on him and I chastise him, he may not like it but at the end of the day he will come back and say 'Coach, you were right.' And I believe in him."
Of course, Smith doesn't always make it easy. Old habits like to resurface. He was a combined 7-for-25 in the first two games of this series (including 0-for-3 from three-point range) and confessed to reporters after Game 2 that he was "searching" for his game. He drew the ire of the home crowd in Game 3 when jumper after jumper clanked off the rim in a 17-point loss.
It wasn't a question of adjustments in Game 4, of reading defenses or recognizing coverages. When Smith saw cracks in the defense, he attacked. When his man left to double team, Smith flashed in the paint. "I did a good job of not settling," Smith said after the game. For him, that's more than half the battle.
The Hawks will need more of
Drew believes they will get that Smith in Game 5. Smith's teammates do, too. They were there for him while he struggled early in the series, offering positive reinforcement when he hung his head. Smith "can do everything," Crawford said," the kind of player the Hawks know they need if they are to pull off this upset.
"There are some things about him I'm just going to have to live with and hope he gets better," Drew said. "He's not going to be perfect out there with his decisions. But he has matured. He is a unique talent. He's special."