Today, the Atlanta Hawks host the Orlando Magic in a must win situation. Game 3 finds the Hawks down 2-0 to the Magic, but the lopsided losses have made the situation seem bleak for Hawks' fans. Its hard to believe, but there are still tickets left for this game in a city that wants to be considered a great sports town.
The band-aid on Hawks' forward Josh Smith's face tells much of the story. The Hawks have been beaten up, kicked, and essentially manhandled by the Magic. During Game 2, Smith was singled out by game analyst Hubie Brown for his lack of hustle, poor attitude, and apathy. Hawks radio broadcaster Steve Hohlman was basically yelling at Coach Mike Woodson to take Smith out of the game.
What has happened to Josh Smith in the two short weeks, since he was being applauded as the Hawks best player in the first two games of the Milwaukee series? Smith dominated Game 2 against the Bucks with a nearly 30 points and an armful of assists, rebounds, and steals. Then, Smith made some throw away comments and probably true comments about the city of Milwaukee and everything has gone downhill since.
Why was Hubie Brown so disappointed? What has happened to Smith's regular season maturity and playmaking skills for teammates? Where is the passion and intensity required to rebound the basketball in the playoffs? Here are 5 reasons why Smith has gone back to the old Josh:
1. Somebody said something about the Milwaukee comments that wounded Smith's pride. Smith is a stubborn guy. It took him 4 years to listen to what Coach Woodson told him about his game. I can see GM Rick Sund talking to him and Smith getting his anger up at Sund instead of channeling the negative media reaction into dominaning on the court.
2. The Bucks realized the Hawks were running their offense through Smith posting up Carlos Delfino on the post. Coach Scott Skiles put Mbah Mboute on Smith and the Luc just simply locked him down. This might be the first time in Smith's career he was treated as the Hawks best offensive player. It is hard to score when you are the focus of the other team. Just ask Joe Johnson.
3. It could be as simple as Smith having a complex about playing against Dwight Howard. Howard seems to intimidate the entire Hawks' front line and guards. In Game 1, the Hawks totally changed their regular season substitution pattern because of Howard. Guards avoided the paint. Bigs rushed shots inside.
4. The physical nature of playoff basketball is affecting Smith. Earlier this season, the Raptors' Juan Calderon bumped Smith going after a loose ball. Smith clearly wanted to fight him. When Smith got hit in the face in Game 1 and in Game 2 against the Magic, he reacted by taking a few plays off. By not getting back on defense. There was no "let me go dunk on someone" of "let me block Vince Carter's shot into the third row" reaction. The bully (in a good sense) is being bullied.
5. Smith does not respond well to criticism from teammates. During the Bucks series, Hawks players were bickering with each other. That should not be a problem. Teammates have to get on each other from time to time. Smith does not take this kind of criticism and turn it into a positive. It does not make him play harder.
On the Hawks team, there is no emotional and vocal leader. Al Horford is the closest to that and he is not the kind of guy that can enforce something. The Hawks need a Kurt Thomas-like guy for the locker room. A Kevin Garnett. A Jameer Nelson.
Smith has to understand that the Hawks have finally reached a bigger stage. They were the only NBA game on Thursday night and Smith took a verbal beating nationally.
Smith has a golden opportunity today to take all of the criticism and use that to raise his level of play. Rise up young Josh and dominate. The last time the Magic were in Orlando you made a game winning dunk that was one of the best plays of the entire NBA 2009-2010 regular season. The Hawks need the "good' Josh to show up and get the win in game 3.