Josh Smith was excited, understandably so. He had just scored 20 points and grabbed 8 rebounds in the closeout game of his first playoff series for the Rockets. Head coach Kevin McHale had a kind word for him. I wonder what he said? A few possibilities:
- “I got a couple of ice cream sandwiches in the freezer for later. Just for us.”
- “I got us a sitter for the night.”
- “Dwight said he’ll lend you a snake for the weekend.”
- “You’re really strong. My arm’s already bruised where you punched it.”
- “Don’t worry, [REDACTED GAME OF THRONES SPOILER]”
- “I’m happy for you.”
If we’re going to answer that tough question correctly, we need to back up and give some context.
On Tuesday night, the Houston Rockets finished off their first-round playoff series against their rival Dallas Mavericks in five games, a feel-good victory all around for multiple reasons. Rockets fans got their schadenfreude over Mark Cuban’s disparaging comments, even though they were denied it regarding Chandler Parsons’ public defection, since Parsons injured his knee in Game 1 and missed the rest of the series. More importantly, the Rockets gave themselves a chance to rest and watch the Spurs and Clippers beat up on each other for at least another game. Even more crucially, Dwight Howard is playing better than he has at any point since he left Orlando, providing the dominant inside force Houston will need against either Tim Duncan or DeAndre Jordan.
Flying under the radar compared to those stories is the emergence — some would say redemption — of Josh Smith. Smoove was the laughingstock of the NBA when he was laying bricks out of position in Detroit, and the Pistons’ win streak after cutting him loose only added fuel to the fire. But after the Rockets picked him up, Smith went to work as the primary big man off the bench, fitting his style of play to Daryl Morey’s singular vision. The long twos all but disappeared, and the threes increased in volume and efficiency (24 percent in Detroit, 33 percent in Houston in the regular season).
Smith combined with fellow midseason acquisition Corey Brewer to turn the Rockets’ reserves into a fast-break machine, playing small-ball center on defense while assuming ballhandling and distributing duties with Harden off the court. Freed of the Pistons’ misery factory, Smoove reminded everyone why he commanded such a big salary from Detroit in the first place — his versatility on both sides of the ball is nearly unmatched, as long as you don’t play him at dang small forward (or ask him to be a stretch four). Sure, he’s turning the ball over way too much, but it’s a fair trade for passing like this:
Smith’s chemistry with Dwight Howard (they were AAU teammates, don’t you know. Have you heard this mentioned? You have? What do dead horses have to do with this?) has produced one of the very best big-to-big passing combinations in the NBA, and is a crucial wrinkle in an offense that otherwise is overly reliant on James Harden’s dribble penetration.
In fact, Josh Smith has proved more essential to the Rockets than anyone thought, thanks to the major injuries that have befallen literally every other big man in the rotation at some point this season. How bad was it? Joey Dorsey played 69 games this season, averaging 2 points in 12 minutes per game. He started 17 games! Smoove, if nothing else, stayed on the friggin’ court.
In Houston’s first-round series, Josh took things to a whole new level. He averaged 17 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists, and shot 39 percent on three-pointers. That’s right. He was third on the team in three-point percentage in the series (behind Brewer and Jason Terry), and averaged more attempts than any Rocket but Harden. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he’s been the third-best Rocket in the playoffs so far.
For Smith to be cast off from a lottery team (and blamed, fairly or unfairly, for their failures), only to find himself a crucial component of a championship contender, is the essence of a feel-good story. Kevin McHale knows this — and answers the question from the top of the post.
So did you guess correctly? My money was on ice cream sandwich.