Posted May 9 2011 10:08AM
ATLANTA -- There are nights, truth be told, when Josh Smith does more to help the Atlanta Hawks' opponent than he does to help the Hawks themselves. Nights when his misplaced confidence in his outside shot, his recklessness on defense or his grumbling about calls does his team more harm than good. Nights when the guys on the other side feel that it is 6-on-4, maybe not from start to finish but for a spell and long enough to swing a game their way.
Game 4 between the Hawks and the Chicago Bulls, however, was not one of those nights.
This -- Atlanta's 100-88 victory at Philips Arena to even the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals at two games each -- was a night of the good Smith, the focused Smith, the Smith who understands that his value to the Hawks increases in direct proportion to his distance from either basket. This was Smith getting it, as he does some nights but not others. Or some quarters but not others.
This was the Smith that Atlanta coach Larry Drew hauls into his office every so often for reminding and imploring, the Smith that Hawks teammates praise as positive reinforcement, knowing all the while that the other guy will show up again soon enough.
One of those players who seems to have G.I. Joe-sized angel and devil influences perched on his shoulders, Smith tormented only the Bulls Sunday. He scored 23 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, five at the offensive end. He blocked two shots, including a driving attempt by Derrick Rose after getting burned in similar fashion moments earlier.
Smith passed for eight assists, connecting frequently with Hawks teammate Al Horford for slams, layups or other shorties. He turned over the ball just twice. He hoisted a 3-pointer just once.
Heck, this was the very good Josh Smith.
"We try to stay in his head," Atlanta guard Joe Johnson said. "Obviously, when he's going to the basket, making easy plays and making it easy for himself, we just try to keep encouraging. Tonight, he was All-Star caliber. He played a great game. When he's playing like that, it's almost impossible for a team to beat us."
The Bulls weren't completely without hope -- they led in the final quarter by as much as three points, after shooting worse than 40 percent for much of the game. The "inadvertent whistle" play by referee Bennett Salvatore near the end will get a lot of attention, but coach Tom Thibodeau was more bothered afterward by a number of other non-calls when Rose attacked the paint, drew contact -- and left empty-handed. (Salvatore blew his whistle when Rose appeared to get fouled on a 3-point attempt with 2:27 left, Bulls down 90-84, then said "no foul." That resulted in a jump-ball that Atlanta won. Later, after seeing the replay, Salvatore said it should have been a foul.)
Rose, who faced a variety of defensive looks from Atlanta, had two legit turnovers late in the game that hurt just as much as the botched call. Still, this was one close enough that Chicago could have used a little of the bad Smith, the fellow who'll loiter on the perimeter and settle for long jumpers. Opponents often can rely on him to shoot the Hawks out of possessions or momentum.
Not this time, though. Smith played smart and the Hawks, as a result, looked sharp. They matched, to start the game, the energy that Chicago had shown in Game 3 Friday. They closed with more, turning an 84-84 tie into the game's first 10-point lead with 1:26 left. Atlanta outscored the Bulls 16-4 over the final 4:31 and Smith was in the middle of it all. He had 11 points, five rebounds and two assists in the quarter.
"I just stayed with it, stayed aggressive," the 25-year-old forward said. "I saw some cracks in the defense where I had an opportunity to drive. Tonight I did a good job of not settling. When I'm able to do that for my team, it helps us out extremely well. When they try to double me, I can present myself out in the middle of the court and make plays out of the double-teams."
It is, as you might guess, a sensitive topic around the Hawks. Part of coaching and playing with anyone in this league is taking some bad with the good. But Smith appeared even to quash his own bad tendencies as the night went on, consciously eschewing some shots he normally would have jacked.
"It sunk in a little bit," Drew said. "I've been telling him that from Day 1: 'Just because you're open doesn't mean it is the shot we take. You just have to play smart.' They're going to bait him into taking those, they're going to entice him into taking those. He just has to be smart."
The Hawks were smarter throughout. They went with a bigger lineup to start, with veteran space-eater Jason Collins at center, moving Horford to the power forward spot and Smith to small forward. Collins didn't do that much -- he got two buckets when the Chicago defense neglected him and four fouls in 11:37 -- but the other two guys played better, suggesting they were liberated by the downshifting.
In particular, Smith modeled his game after the man with whom he was matched, and that was a good thing for the Hawks because Luol Deng is a clever player who moves without the ball and knows his limitations.
"Just trying to do the things at the 'three' that Deng does," Smith said. "He's a great slasher, plays well off the ball. I wanted to try to do the same thing for my ballclub."
Being like Luol is a better model for Smith, as far as the Hawks are concerned, than being like Mike. Or LeBron. Or Jason Terry.
"When he's rebounding and running the floor and pushing the basketball -- I thought he made some really good plays in transition -- that's who he is," Drew said. "He has a unique ability to impact the game on both ends of the floor. A guy his size, with his athleticism, he brings a lot. When he's flying around making plays, when he's playing energized basketball, he's really good."
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