Let’s start by being completely honest: The Houston Rockets are massive underdogs heading into the Western Conference Finals.
The Golden State Warriors beat them every time the teams met in the regular season, and though Dwight Howard missed two of those games, he also had 23 points and 10 rebounds on 60 percent shooting in their January 17 matchup… and the Rockets lost by 25. The Warriors have been better on offense and on defense over the balance of the regular season and the playoffs. So, if the Rockets are going to flip the script, they’ll need a wild card, and it just so happens that they have the wildest card in the deck (or the NBA, if you want to get technical) in Josh Smith.
Through the first four games of the Rockets’ Conference Semifinals series with the Clippers, Smith averaged just over six points and didn’t shoot better than 33 percent from the field in any one game. Not coincidentally, the Rockets looked completely over-matched. Then, Kevin McHale inserted Smoove into the starting lineup, and he shot 57 percent, 56 percent and 60 percent and averaged 14 points over the final three games (while also cutting down on his turnovers). He had just as stark a turnaround on defense, finally engaging enough mentally to bother Blake Griffin, blocking one of his shots in each game and rotating better on pick-and-rolls.
In Houston’s dramatic Game 6 comeback, Smoove entered the game with 8:51 remaining and the Rockets down 94-85. He proceeded to score 14 points while shooting 3-4 from range, with two rebounds, a steal and a block of Griffin. Only Corey Brewer, with 15, outscored him in the quarter. With James Harden sitting, Smith and Brewer ran the Clippers into the ground.
Offensively, Smith will primarily do two things against Golden State… push the ball up the court in transition and spot up for threes. He handled the ball much less in the 4/5 pick-and-roll against the Clippers than he did against the Mavericks because Griffin and DeAndre Jordan had the size and quickness to neutralize it, much like Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut do. He will set plenty of screens, but didn’t have much luck as the roller against the Clippers even in the games he was playing well. They were better equipped to prevent the kind of actions the Mavs (and Dirk Nowitzki, bless his heart) couldn’t.
He also will post up once in a blue moon, on a mismatch and/or late in the shot clock, and he’s somewhat effective in those situations. But the fast break and the catch-and-shoots will determine Smith’s contributions on offense.
In the playoffs so far, the Rockets have played at the fastest pace of any team, according to NBA.com. When Harden is on the bench, Smith is often the primarily ball-handler, and his willingness to push is a huge asset for Houston, especially because if Harden’s sitting, then human greyhound Corey Brewer is in the game, and they combine for plays like this (from that Game 6 fourth quarter):
Only Harden assisted on more Brewer buckets in the regular season than Smith did, and you better believe most of them were on the fast break. The Smoove-Brewer combination will be the easiest way for the Rockets to make hay when the Warriors’ bench is in the game. Of course, the above play also reflected a lack of discipline from the Clippers’ transition D, and it would be surprising to see the Warriors lose Brewer as completely.