ATLANTA — The battles rages on between “Good Josh [Smith]” and “Bad Josh.”
The duel between the enigmatic and energetic sides of the Atlanta Hawks’ mercurial star was on full display in what could easily serve as a case study of his game, the Hawks’ season-saving 102-91 Game 4 win over the Indiana Pacers that evened their first round playoff series at two games each Monday night at Philips Arena.
Hawks fans are used to this reality show, cheering Smith wildly when he makes a spectacular play and then jeering him seconds later when he parks at the 3-point line for a 3-pointer no one else in the building wants him to take. It’s a surreal atmosphere, one you have to witness for yourself to comprehend just how peculiar it can be.
It’s gone on like this the better part of the last nine years, Hawks fans reaching for their blood pressure medicine one second and then leaping out of their seats the next. It’s a love-hate relationship with one of their own that Oklahoma City Thunder fans have developed with All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, only Westbrook isn’t hearing it from a crowd of fans in his hometown of Los Angeles.
Smith doesn’t flinch, no matter how loud the crowd gets. And they rode the emotional roller coaster with him on this night, play after crazy play from start to finish as Smith scored a career playoff-high 29 points with 11 rebounds, four assists and three steals. It was his first 25-point, 10-rebound playoff game and came in his 50th postseason appearance, a nice robust number for a player who continues to confound not only the fans but some of his teammates as well.
“This was definitely one of those ‘ooh, aah’ moments with Josh,” Al Horford said. “He gives you those ‘oohs’ and then those ‘aahs.’ It’s kind of a ‘Yes’ and then ‘No’ thing going on. That’s the way it is. I think [the fans] obviously want Josh to be successful. Everybody loves him here. Sometimes we do question his shot selection. But tonight he hit some big shots down the stretch, made some huge plays for other guys down the stretch and made plays to help us win this game. I know it might drive some people a little crazy. But it works for us and that’s just the way it is.”
The fans stayed on for the good and bad Monday night, pulling their hair out in the third quarter as he missed all six of his shots from the floor, including all three of his 3-point attempts, and just half of his 12 free throws as the Hawks’ 18-point lead shrunk to just four late in the quarter.
That same crowd rose to their feet in the final tense moments of the game. Smith scored seven of his 29 points in the fourth quarter, shot 3-for-4 from the floor, dished out three assists, grabbed two crucial rebounds and blocked a shot. His 3-pointer with 3:08 to play pushed the Hawks’ lead to 89-81. His rebound of a Horford miss with the Hawks’ clinging to an 89-83 lead was followed by a no-look pass to Kyle Korver on the wing for the 3-point dagger that pushed the lead to nine with 2:33 to play and muted any chance the Pacers had of coming back.
“That was the biggest play of the game right there,” Horford said. “He was aware enough to find Kyle and Kyle had a clean look and knocked it down. That’s what it’s all about right there.”
Korver was huge off the bench, scoring 19 points and draining five of his eight shots from beyond the 3-point line. Anthony Tolliver nailed all three of his 3-pointers, too, helping Smith blow the game open during a 35-19 run while Horford was in foul trouble and on the bench for all but three minutes of the quarter.
“Tolliver and Korver really lit us up,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “We have to do a better job closing out on those guys so they don’t get going early.”
The Hawks shooters got going because Smith was cooking, inside and out (he scored 10 points in the quarter) and controlling the action (he also had five rebounds). Toss in his defensive work on Pacers All-Star Paul George in Games 3 and 4, a series-changing adjustment from Hawks coach Larry Drew, and it’s clear that Smith is one of the main reasons Hawks fans will get a chance to see Game 6 here Friday night.
“I thought Josh Smith played a phenomenal game,” Drew said. “It was a challenge trying to defend Paul George and he took the challenge.”
Smith has never shied away from those challenges, same as he’s never wavered in his confidence in his own abilities to do the things people assume he can’t or better yet shouldn’t, in certain situations. It’s the beauty and the curse of his game. It’s also a quality you have to see up close to appreciate, according to Hawks guard Devin Harris, who couldn’t help but smile when asked about his first year watching Smith deal with the love-hate dynamic from the hometown fans.
“I think that’s just Atlanta. And him being here, being from here, that just a unique relationship they have with one another,” Harris said. “I thought he was dialed in from (minute) one tonight. He just piggybacked from what he did in Game 3 and was a force for us. When he plays like that, we’re a very good team.”
A team that gave the Pacers fits yet again, beating them for the 13th straight time at Philips Arena. A team capable of perhaps winning this series, though the Hawks will have to win a game in Indianapolis to do so. Smith is confident, even if others are not, as he should be. For all the hate that comes his way, Smith will finish his ninth season in elite company. He passed Kevin Willis for fourth place on the Hawks’ all-time postseason games played list. He’s also one of just four players in NBA history to have 10,000 points, 5,000 rebounds and 1,400 blocks at 27, joining Shaquille O’Neal, Dwight Howard and Hakeem Olajuwon.
“Energy and effort,” Smith said of the things the Hawks need to take with them for Game 5 Wednesday night. “If we play with those things and play together … that’s what it will take for us to compete up there in arena.”
There will only be jeers up there for Josh … good or bad.