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.
When Harden is on the court, Smoove will have to knock down shots in the halfcourt. There’s a very good chance the Warriors will start the series by sagging off Smith and daring him to shoot so they can clog the paint against Harden, and the only way to counteract that will be for Smith to hit a shot or two and make (in all likelihood) Draymond Green take a couple of steps out of the lane. At the very least, if Green closes out on Smith, he will have to try at least one drive, to give another shooter a chance with the kick-out pass he’s demonstrated an aptitude for.
Even though the Clippers were every bit as efficient as the Warriors offensively over the regular season, the Dubs present a different challenge to the Rockets. Green isn’t the all-encompassing force Blake was, but the Stephen Curry/Green pick-and-roll is absolute hell to defend, and Smith will be crucial. If Jason Terry or Pablo Prigioni are guarding Curry, Smith will either hedge to buy them time to recover or switch completely. A Terry or Pablo/Green mismatch is laughably easy to beat, so Smith will have to work his tail off tracking back to Green so that Harden, Ariza, Brewer et al. can stay home on the Warriors’ shooters. If Ariza guards Curry, it should ease the pressure for Smith at the point of attack, but there will be more fires to put out all over the floor, and Smoove will be desperately needed for rotations.
If the Warriors go small with Green at the 5, the Rockets can counter with a Terry/Prigioni-Brewer-Harden-Ariza-Smith lineup they used frequently in the regular season when Howard was hurt. The Warriors would still be incredibly tough to stop in that form, but that Rockets lineup has the length and versatility to do a better job at it than nearly anyone else. And, of course, that lineup runs like hell, which should make for some of the most entertaining basketball in the series.
If this seems like a gigantic burden, that’s because it is. The Warriors’ offense forces impossible choice after impossible choice, and if Steph and Klay Thompson are hitting from outside (and they can get hot even with hands in their faces), not much else will matter. But Ariza and Howard are two of the best defenders left in the playoffs, and Smith can match their ability if he matches their effort.
The word “if” might as well be Josh Smith’s middle name. If he can put it all together — active defense, a decent outside shot, smart ball-handling — for four games, the Rockets can win them. When the Rockets were down 3-1 to the Clippers after getting dismantled, questions arose about whether a core of Harden and Howard was enough to win a title. In Games 5 through 7, the question was answered: Yes, if Smith is playing well.
At his best, Smoove is absolutely good enough to be the third piece of a big three. Now, the question has changed: Can Smith play well consistently enough to take the Rockets to the next level? The problem is, no one knows the answer.