Josh Smith and Al Horford are the engine that drives the Hawks. Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images
By Jon Cooper
Some duos just belong together.
Stockton and Malone, Jordan and Pippen, Magic and Kareem.
Al Horford and Josh Smith aren't quite at that level yet, but they're getting there.
Born six months apart (Smith on Dec. 5, 1985 in College Park, Ga., Horford on June 3, 1986 in Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic), and selected three years apart (Smith 17th overall in 2004 straight out of high school, Horford the No. 3 overall in 2007 after a three-year college career at the University of Florida resulting in back-to-back NCAA Tournament championships), Smith and Horford have sharply raised the stock of the Atlanta Hawks in their six years together.
The respect Smith and Horford have gained for the Hawks is matched by their respect for each other. The Hawks snapped a nine-year playoff drought the first year Smith and Horford teamed up in 2007-08. They haven't missed the playoffs since and, with a winning season in 2012-13, will have five consecutive winning seasons, the second-longest streak in franchise history (the longest is seven years from 1992-93 through 1998-99).
It's a healthy respect that can be traced back to AAU days, when they were opponents. One such meeting came on July 27, 2003, when Smith's Atlanta Celtics topped Horford's Michigan Mustangs 85-65 in the final of the Open Division of the adidas Big Time Tournament at Green Valley High School in Las Vegas.
"His team beat up on my team in AAU," Horford recalled with a laugh."His team had him, Randolph Morris and Dwight Howard. They had a great team."
While Smith got the better of Horford, a mutual respect was born. It has only gotten stronger over the years.
"By him winning those two [NCAA] championships, we knew that he brought a winning spirit to the ball club and organization and a winning attitude," Smith said. "He's always been one to voice his opinion and people listen and respect it because he works hard and is passionate about the game."
"Josh has always been very gifted, a very athletic, explosive player," Horford said. "You always knew he was hungry, and he wanted to play at the highest level and be one of the best. He's been able to accomplish that."
It's been a rewarding year for Horford, who has bounced back from a 2011-12 season in which he played only 11 games because of a torn pectoral muscle. He ranks among NBA leaders in double-doubles, field goal percentage and is in the top 25 in scoring and had a torrid stretch of nine straight games in which he scored at least 20 points (Feb. 11 - March 3). Smith, meanwhile, is having another Smith-like year. He's among the league leaders in blocked shots per game and rebounds and is even in the top 40 in assists. That's played out statistically, as Smith and Horford are 1-2 on the Hawks in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots and are near the top in assists and steals.
"They have a chemistry on the floor that is pretty good, and you can see how they enjoy playing with another. To me, that's where it all begins," Hawks head coach Larry Drew said. "They know where each guy wants the ball. They know, out of our offense, when the ball should be delivered on particular plays. You can see the both of them looking for one another when they're out on the floor. They know I really rely on them when they're out on the floor. Both guys have done a really good job as far as being leaders on our team."
In 2012-13, Horford and Smith have accomplished plenty together, taking their games to new heights at a speed few forward tandems can match.
Part of their unstoppability is their versatility, which allows each to play in the paint or on the perimeter, and their athleticism, which lets both not only run the floor but finish on the break.Both have scored in double-figures in at least 60 of the team's games, with Horford scoring in double-figures in every game since Jan. 19, while Smith has been held to single-digits once since Feb. 6, scoring his 10,000th career point on March 4 at Denver.
"We've figured out a way to make each other successful, been able to make it easier on ourselves getting shots," Smith said. "We've played together for a little bit now, and we do work well together."
The lift they give the team is obvious to teammates.
"They've been playing together for a while and have a good feel for one another out there, looking for one another," guard Devin Harris said. "When you get bigs that can pass the way they can pass and the things that they can do, especially late in the game, it's a huge advantage for us."
The following game the duo struck again, this time in Orlando, as Smith went for 30 and 10 with five assists, while Horford had 26, 12 and five. They became the first Hawks teammates to score at least 26 points, grab 10 rebounds and dish out five assists since Lenny Wilkens (also in the Hall of Fame) and Joe Caldwell on Nov. 24, 1967. Heading into action March 28, the team was 16-3 when Smith and Horford had double-doubles in the same game, with several of those double-doubles being quite spectacular. On Feb. 11 in Dallas, Smith scored 26 points on 10-15 shooting with 13 rebounds, while Horford put in 21 on 10-14, with 10 rebounds in Atlanta's 105-101 victory. According to Elias Sports Bureau, that marked the first time since April 1, 1990 that Atlanta teammates had 20-10 games while shooting at least 67 percent. The last Atlanta tandem to do it was Dominique Wilkins and Moses Malone, both Basketball Hall of Famers.
"I've never seen two bigs that play as well together as they do," forward Anthony Tolliver said. "They have great chemistry and really help our team in a large way on offense and defense. They really lead this team, and as they go, we go."
Drew is not surprised at the play above the rim he's seen from his front court."We look for each other a lot on the high-low, and we share the basketball extremely well," Smith said. "It's always good to be able to have a good passing big with you. It feels good to run the floor and be able to reward each other because we work so hard on the other end."
"When you have athleticism it opens up a lot of things," he said. "Both guys are terrific passers, therefore they look for each other a lot in transition. A lot of plays that we run, anything that does call for anything to the rim, I know with both guys that if I involve them there's a chance it's going to be successful."
Horford has proven to be the perfect wingman for Smith, a known high-flyer. But Horford insists Smith is more than just a finisher.
"Josh is a great passer," Horford said. "He sees things like a guard out there. I always try to return the favor. He's a smart player, and I am as well, so we kind of feed off each other. When Josh is around the basket he's very tough to stop, and I mix it in. We mix it up. Sometimes he steps out and hits the jump shot or sometimes I pop, sometimes I roll. We just play games with each other. I can catch [alley-oops], too! Every now and then I'll throw it to him, too."
Horford admitted that he was relieved to see Smith stay in Atlanta following a trade deadline that saw a flurry of rumors. He is looking forward to a big finish to the year while continuing to enjoy playing with Smith and these Hawks.
"This is our team, and we're going to fight," Horford said. "We're going to keep fighting, whatever happens."
Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.
Second photo by Kent Smith/NBAE/Getty Images