NBA Saturday: Josh Smith MVP Candidate?
Senior NBA & College Basketball Editor
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Smith Walks the Walk: Unfortunately for Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith, his dreams of becoming a NBA All-Star were not fulfilled this year. Despite his inspired play, filling much of the void left by teammate Al Horford’s injury-related absence, Smith was passed over in favor of Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce, Miami HEAT forward Chris Bosh, Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng and Philadelphia 76ers forward Andre Iguodala.
As Smith expressed in an exclusive interview with HOOPSWORLD, he was understandably less than pleased. Being an All-Star was something that Smith sought to do this year. In a lot of people’s eyes he did enough to earn that honor, averaging 15.9 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.1 blocks per game.
There’s a saying that an angry player is a bad player. In Smith’s case it’s the opposite; the angrier the better. Motivated by the snub, Smith put in a MVP-caliber performance on Friday night against the Orlando Magic. Going up against his lifelong friend and All-Star starter Dwight Howard, Smith finished the game with more points (23), rebounds (19), blocks (3) and assists (5).
“A little bit of everything,” Smith said to HOOPSWORLD about his performance. “I was getting some play calls tonight. I wanted to be efficient down low on the block. I think I did a good job with that and I just took what the defense gave me tonight. I just wanted to be able to help down there on the rebounds with Dwight, just to be able to come out there and just put my best foot forward.”
While Smith definitely put his best foot forward, the Hawks as a team struggled in the fourth quarter. They were up by nine with 8:26 remaining, but ended up being outscored 24-17 in the fourth quarter. Missing an attempt to win it at the end of regulation, the Hawks quickly re-gathered and won in overtime 89-87.
“That’s just been our DNA all season long,” Smith told HOOPSWORLD. “Just to be able to withstand runs from teams and we’ve just been playing with a certain kind of toughness and grittiness and definitely we’ve just been matching the physicality of the other teams and we’ve just been trying to be the initiators every time.”
The victory is sweet for Smith for a couple of reasons. Not only did it help justify his claim that he should have been an All-Star, but the victory also came against the Magic, who a lot of his early-career struggles came against.
“It’s just real good,” Smith said. “Early on in my career the margin of defeat was probably 30 to 25 points so being able to just get established here and just be in every ball game as of late, it just, it definitely shows you the growth process of this basketball team.
“We’re a veteran ball club and we’re figuring out ways to win on the road. We’ve still got to stay consistent at home but I think we like the feeling of every man against us when we come out and play.”
With the All-Star goals put on hold until next year, if Smith keeps up his current level of play he could end up receiving an accolade that in reality is just as prestigious, if not more so: a spot on the All-NBA team. While there’s not an entire weekend dedicated to celebrating that, being an All-NBA selection signifies being one of the league’s top 13 players overall. Being recognized as one of your conference’s top 12 players at the midway point is nice and all, but where you’re at at the end of the year is more important than where you were halfway through it.
The Lingend Continues: There isn’t a bigger story in the NBA right now than the meteoric rise of New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin. On the verge of being let go by what would have been his third team, Lin exploded against the New Jersey Nets last Saturday and hasn’t slowed down since.
Going up against the Los Angeles Lakers on national television Lin scored a career-high 38 points, dished out seven assists and grabbed four rebounds to further build his popularity and legend. While a lot of people are waiting for the clock to strike midnight on Lin’s Cinderella story, he’s continuing to produce at an absurd rate.
Lin did everything against the Lakers. He got by whoever they threw at him with ease, knocked down the three when they backed off of him, got to the free throw line 13 times and even took a charge late in the game to kill any chance of a Laker comeback.
Say what you may about Lin, he’s no longer an unknown who teams don’t even bother to scout against. He’s responding to the pressure and thriving off of it.
The Lin show will be back in action tonight as they take on the Minnesota Timberwolves and Ricky Rubio, who has become yesterday’s news with Lin’s emergence. They’ll be looking to win season-best fifth straight.
Manu Back: The San Antonio Spurs are set to welcome back starting shooting guard Manu Ginobili tonight against the New Jersey Nets. Ginboili, who scored 17 points a game in the first five contests of the year, has been out since January 2 after he broke his left hand against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
At the time, the injury was thought to be devastating for the Spurs. Instead, all it’s been is a minor speed bump that could end up being a blessing in disguise. They learned a lot about themselves during that stretch, in which they went 15-7. Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich got an extended look at guys that he may not have gotten with Manu in the lineup.
By virtue of playing so well in Ginobili’s absence, the Spurs are currently sitting in third place in the Western Conference.
It’s already quite clear that this Spurs team is once again set to exceed expectations and prove that they’ve been left for dead too soon. Manu’s return comes right as they are in the midst of their longest road trip of the season. He’s not going to be playing much until he gets his legs back under him, but just by being in uniform he’ll give the team a boost in morale.
Once he gets back to his regular self, the Spurs could be serious contenders. The big question of whether or not they’re going to peak at the right time remains, though. Regular season success means nothing to them and it’s all they have to show for the last few years as they have consistently regressed at the most important time.
Brooks Named Coach of West All-Stars: Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks will coach the Western Conference All-Stars for the 2012 NBA All-Star Game, to be played on Sunday, Feb. 26, at the Amway Center in Orlando.
With Oklahoma City’s 101-87 win over the Utah Jazz on Friday, the Thunder (21-6, .778) has clinched the best record in the conference through games played Feb. 15.
Brooks earned Western Conference Coach of the Month honors for games played in December/January, and his team owns a 9-1 mark at home.
Brooks has led the Thunder to back-to-back playoff appearances (2010, 2011) for the first time since 1997 and 1998. Brooks, the 2009-10 NBA Coach of the Year, owns a 148 -112 (.569) career record as a head coach.
San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich coached the West All-Stars last season.
The coach of the East All-Stars will be determined by the team with the best record in the conference through games played Feb. 15. The Boston Celtics’ Doc Rivers, who coached last year’s East squad, is not eligible to coach this year’s All-Star Game.
The 2012 NBA All-Star Game will air live on TNT and ESPN Radio in the U.S., and reach fans in more than 200 countries and territories in more than 40 languages.
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