When Larry Drew made the semi-controversial decision to “go big” before Game 3, I was one of the strong detractors from the move. Granted, my opposition stemmed directly from the use of Johan Petro and had much less to do with Josh Smith being deployed at the small forward spot, but it is certainly fair to say that I wasn’t excited.
Then, Josh Smith reminded everyone of his incredible versatility, and even quieted the doubters a bit.
After the lineup change, Smith was deployed defensively as the “stopper” of Indiana swingman Paul George, and George certainly needed the attention. In games 1 and 2, George averaged 25 points per game, got to the line 25 total times (12.5 per game), and generally wreaked havoc on the Atlanta defense. The rotating door of defenders (Kyle Korver, Devin Harris, Deshawn Stevenson, etc.) proved futile against George, as his 6-foot-9 frame allowed him to glide over the top.
Smith changed the dynamic against George, providing similar stature and athleticism for the first time in the series, and while I still didn’t love the Petro deployment (I would’ve preferred Ivan Johnson), there was no denying the effect that Smith had at the small forward spot in guarding George. In games 3 and 4, George’s scoring average dipped to 18.5 points per game while his free-throw attempts also lowered to 8 per game. It was clear to see that George’s eyes weren’t lighting up every time he saw Smith (as they were on Korver), and his aggressiveness waned noticeably during the games in Atlanta.
On the offensive end, Smith was his typical Jekyll/Hyde self in Atlanta (attempting 9 shots from 16-plus feet in Game 4), but his all-court impact (11 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, 1 block in the same game) is undeniable, and he was one of the keys to both victories. It was a little bit curious to see that Larry Drew stopped using the big lineup down the stretch of Game 4, and non-coincidentally, the Pacers were able to score 29 points during the frame.
Going forward, it will be critical to maximize Josh’s defensive minutes on George, and in Indianapolis, the defensive effort for Atlanta must match that of the level they achieved in Philips Arena. The use of Ivan Johnson (much more than 18 minutes he played in Game 4) would be a plus, but the focus should be on making sure that Smith is the shadow of Paul George for as many minutes as possible.
He’ll take his jump shots (don’t we all know this?), but Josh Smith is a fantastic asset, and even the most vocal detractors (cough, me) can see it.