Josh Smith hit a low point in December when the Detroit Pistons paid him $US26 million to go away, buying him out of his contract after failing to trade him.
Smith was having a poor season, shooting 39% from the floor and 24% from three-point range, with an overall net negative rating when he was on the court.
However, since leaving the Pistons and joining the Houston Rockets as a free agent, he has had a revitalization.
Smith’s versatility is key for the Rockets. At 6’9″, he’s an athletic big who can play and guard several positions, handle the ball like a guard, and (when he’s on) space the floor with three-point shooting. Though Smith has always been a frustrating player because of his own inconsistencies — something that hasn’t changed in the playoffs — when “Good Josh Smith” is around, he takes the Rockets to a new level.
In the postseason, the Rockets are outscoring opponents by 0.2 points per 100 possessions when Smith on the court. While that number is unimpressive on its surface, consider it’s the second-highest mark on the team, ahead of players like James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry, and Terrence Jones. When Smith is off the court, the Rockets are being outscored by almost five points per 100 possessions.
Smith’s versatility allows the Rockets to send some different looks on the court. They can play “big” with Dwight Howard at center and Smith as a power forward, where his shooting and passing in narrow spaces is crucial, or they can go “small,” with Smith and another power forward splitting time as the de facto centres. When the Rockets go small, it creates interesting matchups in which Smith is key because of his versatility and ability to hit threes.
The latter has been perhaps Smith’s biggest development this postseason. Smith shot 33% from three during the regular season with Houston and is a career 28.5% three-point shooter. However, in the playoffs, Smith is shooting a career-high 39% from downtown. In the Western Conference Finals, he has hit 8-19 from three-point range, good for 42%. The Warriors like to grant Smith space on the perimeter, encouraging him to shoot. However, when he’s hitting them, he can walk into easy, free points like this:
As ProBasketball Talk’s Kurt Helin noted, Smith has also been key in the Rockets’ resiliency this postseason. In four elimination games this year — three against the Clippers in addition to Monday night’s victory over the Warriors — Smith has averaged 15.7 points on 64% shooting, 53% from three, five rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game.
However, Smith still has a tendency to disappear at times, and it’s put Houston in some bad spots this postseason. In the first four games of the second-round series with the Clippers, Smith averaged six points on 29% shooting. In a critical Game 2 loss to the Warriors, in which the Rockets staged a big comeback only to fall apart in 48 seconds, Smith had just 10 points on 5-17 shooting with one rebound and two assists.
The Rockets need Smith to realise their full potential. Kevin McHale told Houston Chronicle’s Jenny Dial Creech, “We don’t get to where we are this year without Josh.”
The Rockets are still down 3-1 to the Warriors, and no team in NBA history has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in the postseason. The Rockets rely on James Harden and Dwight Howard first and foremost, but Smith is their X factor, and if he’s playing to the peak of his abilities, he gives the Rockets a chance to get back in the series.
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