Josh Smith and the painful mystery of faith

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You want him to get it. So badly. But in wanting him to get it, you’re missing how much he’s doing. If you focus on what he’s doing, you’re missing how much he doesn’t get it. And all the while you’re not sure if he’s just oblivious to what goes on around him, to the reasons for people “hating” on his mid-range, or if he’s hyper-aware and deliberately messing with critics and a franchise that continues to hold onto him despite his wishes otherwise. He’s fierce, he’s confusing, he’s frustrating, he’s incredible.

He’s Josh Smith.

From Lang Whitaker at The Classical:

Even though I’ve known Josh Smith since the night he was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks, I am not sure I will ever completely know Josh Smith. If Allen Iverson was The Answer, perhaps Josh Smith is The Question, at least among NBA fans. What kind of player is he? What kind of player should he be? What kind of player will he become?

I’m not the only one: NBA fans in general don’t seem to know what to make of Josh. Even though everyone knows long jumpers aren’t his forte, he still occasionally lofts them at the rim, eliciting loud criticisms from Hawks fans. (At least when those shots carom off.) Fans see Josh flash a sour face when a call goes against him or the Hawks, and don’t seem quite to get his perceived obstinacy. These are the two biggest criticisms regularly lodged against Smith, and though both are mostly outdated this point, Smith seems to still be paying for past mistakes.

Back in 2008, I interviewed Josh for SLAM, and I asked him how he feels about fans criticizing his game or his attitude. “I really can’t talk about all that,” Josh said, “because people don’t know me. You know me, you see me in the locker room, you see how I act, you see me in person. So everyone who’s trying to take down my character, I don’t have nothing to say, because they haven’t seen me face to face or they haven’t sat down and had a conversation with me.

via The Josh Smith Question | The Classical.

Here are a few things we know about Smith in the context of the modern NBA.

  • He’s having a monster season, posting a career high in points and rebounds per 36. His percentages are down with his usage up. He’s able to take over a game and when engaged, there is no matchup for him. His post moves against small opponents are devastating, his driving game against larger power forwards a total mismatch. There are about ten players league wide who can effectively check him one-on-one when he decides to be aggressive.
  • He doesn’t decide to be aggressive. Synergy Sports tell us that Smith elects for a jumpshot 48 percent of the time, versus post-ups and scores at the basket which account for 49 percent of his possessions. And the weirder trend is that Smith has actually moved more in that direction over the past three seasons, despite his percentages getting worse.  Here’s what the percentage of Smith’s shots at each point on the floor are over the past three seasons.

source:

And here’s what his actual shooting percentages look like over that same time span:

source:

So he shot a record high percentage last year, that still wasn’t very good (red means bad), and yet he has responded by… shooting even more mid-range jump shots! /facepalm.

But then you see the kind of percentages in the paint, and rebounding, and the assists, and the steals, and the blocks, and the key plays. Smith is a perennial defensive player of the year candidate. He’s an absolute monster and arguably the biggest reason year in and year out that the Hawks aren’t just a playoff team, but a middle-seed one. Their underwhelming assortment of talent and style aside, they’ve been a really good team for the past five seasons. They just have.

And yet Smith is not an All-Star. He’s religiously passed up over what he feels are “political” reasons. Even that, though, is baffling. Smith isn’t outspoken, he doesn’t trash his teammates nor his coaches on a consistent basis. He’s not a sterling example of friendliness, but who cares? The man can ball at the highest level.

Smith has had a rocky relationship with the Hawks, though not an explosive one. He was signed to an offer sheet by Memphis after no one else extended him an offer in restricted free agency a few years ago, because they all assumed the Hawks would match. The Grizzlies had some cap room to spare and threw out a figure. The Hawks matched, getting Smith back at a discount. He’s asked for a trade consistently since then, to no avail. And with the way most people consider his game, mentally unstable in decision-making offensively, complete without being comprehensive, I keep coming back to the same question.

What do you want to bet in New York, Los Angeles, or Boston Josh Smith is an All-Star? I’m not arguing that it’s an issue of market. Atlanta is a huge market and a perennial playoff team. But you have to think that on a team that welcomed him in as a star, with top level talent and conceivably a top level coach, that Smith would “get it.” That those jumpshots would become either out of the pick and roll or more attacks at the rim. To put it another way, is Josh Smith being held back in his prime?

We’re left to wonder about this as the Hawks steam towards another inevitable first or second round exit, another “good year, not great” for a team that is “good, not great.” We’ll continue to wonder if Josh Smith is capable of being greatness, or if it’s the spirit that defines his game that renders him just on the cusp of immortality, and if in another set of circumstances, another life, if that spirit might form something altogether greater.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.