HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Josh Smith didn’t plan on playing the hero.
When Joe Johnson pulled up for the potential game-winning shot, Smith expected it to fall.
But he took off toward the basket anyway, just in case.
Good thing he did.
It was Smith’s rebound and dunk as time expired that sealed the Hawks’ gritty 86-84 win over Southeast Division rival Orlando, a team that had smoked the Hawks by an average of 22 points in their three previous meetings this season.
Jaw-dropping, gravity-defying plays aren’t unusual for Smith, easily one of the league’s most breathtaking athletic marvels. But even he had a hard time explaining this one.
“What did Dwight [Howard] have 25 rebounds?” Smith said of his former preschool classmate, AAU teammate and longtime friend. Actually it was 24. “It was a blessing that he didn’t grab that one. And I was just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to grab and put it back.”
The right place was a solid foot above the rim and the right time was in the closing seconds (the last sequence was actually the last nine seconds) of a game full of playoff-level intensity from both sides.
“I had a great view of the play from the corner,” Hawks center Al Horford said, “so I knew it was good when he caught because he had the follow through and everything before the light went off. I was really excited because we actually made a mistake on the play before that. I was supposed to switch over on Vince [Carter] on defense and hesitated for a second and waited to long and he knocked down the 3-pointer that tied the game. So Josh sort of bailed me out.
“But this was an important game for us because people have been talking about how much better they are than us. And honestly, we don’t feel that way. So we had to come out and get this win.”
It was even sweeter for Smith, who exchanged hugs with Howard after the game. He started his celebration on his way up the floor after the dunk, before the game officials reviewed the play to determine if he had gotten the shot off in time.
“I knew it was close,” Smith said. “But I had to celebrate a little bit, because this is a long time coming for us, to knock off Orlando. They’ve had our number for a year or two now.”