On Dec. 26, 2014, Josh Smith made his Houston Rockets debut against the Memphis Grizzlies. He came off the bench and gave the Rockets much needed energy and athleticism. His quickness allowed him to get past Grizzlies' bigs. His passing helped set up the offense and facilitated some crucial possessions. And his strength and length allowed him to collect 8 rebounds, including two important boards during the overtime period.
His first game in a Rockets uniform gave the coaches, players, and fans hope and optimism that he was the X-factor the team was missing. A versatile power forward that would adjust to the Rockets free-flow offense and become a more efficient, potent player.
Flash forward to the postseason, particularly the second-half of Game 2. Smith played the basketball Daryl Morey envisioned when he signed him in late December. After the trade, Kevin McHale talked about wanting Smith to fill up the stat sheet, primarily with assists and rebounds. In Game 2, Josh Smith had 15 points, 9 assists (7 assists in the fourth quarter), and 8 rebounds. The good Josh Smith was on display, and his momentum-changing plays propelled the Houston Rockets to a commanding win over their I-45 rivals.
During his post-game interview, Josh Smith talked about finding a "wrinkle" in the Mavericks defense. He continued, "We turned it up another notch in the fourth quarter. We just started off with the defense and we were able to get stops limiting them to one shot. We were able to get out in transition and get some easy buckets".
With these comments in mind, I decided to re-watch the 4th quarter and analyze what in-game adjustments the Rockets made, and what made Josh Smith so effective.
The 4/5 Pick-and-Roll
Josh Smith's ability to act as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll is unique for a power forward. His swiftness gives him an advantage over most players he goes up against, particularly against laterally slow players like Dirk Nowitzki and Amar'e Stoudemire. Combine that with Dwight Howard's elite rubbing/slipping ability and you have a lethal pick-and-roll combination that is hard to stop.
The 4/5 pick-and-roll, especially with Josh Smith as the ball-handler, involves the screener rubbing Smith's defender and quickly slipping inside. Depending on the coverage, more times than not, Smith will lob it up to Dwight Howard who'll dunk it down with very little resistance.
If the opposing defenders decide to double Smith and force him to pass, he'll have Dwight open for an easy alley-oop slam. If the defenders decide to seal off Howard's roll, then Josh Smith will have an open lane (his deceptive speed will allow him to finish).
The first 4/5 pick-and-roll of the 4th quarter involved the Ama're and Dirk as the two bigs. Both of them showed off the Dwight rub, believing Al-Farouq Aminu would rotate over and contest Howard at the rim. However, two problems occur. One, Dirk hesitates and isn't able to recover after showing on Smith. Two, Aminu is too far from the rim and too far from Ariza to contest what would have been an open three. Miscommunication on defense and the lack of lateral quickness from Amare and Dirk gave the Rockets an easy lob conversion.
Also, I can't discredit the Rockets offensive spacing. Two shooters were present in the corners and one on the right wing (in case Smith needed to kick out with dominant left-hand). High-percentage corner three shooters in Ariza and Brewer helped free up Dwight Howard. The potential of a three-point basket scares Aminu, Barea, and Felton from leaving their man. The presence of the shooters along with Smith's passing prowess and Howard's cutting ability make this a very difficult combination to defend and cause much confusion among opposing defenses.
Example 2: Coach Carlisle makes an adjustment.
The Rockets ran the 4/5 pick-and-roll the first time with the intention that the Mavericks were going to double the ball-handler as they essentially have done throughout the series. To counter the first lob conversion, Dallas Coach Rick Carlisle decided to have Tyson Chandler and Dirk switch on the pick-and-roll. This could take away the lob-pass if both players quickly switch and Dirk inhibits Dwight's roll. However, Nowitzki is unable to contain Dwight Howard. He twirls TWICE past Dirk and converts on the lob pass from Smith.
The Rockets have attacked and destroyed Dirk Nowitzki on any pick-and-roll action. He's neither able to laterally move his feet quick enough nor properly recover off switches and screens.
So how can the Dallas Mavericks minimize the success of the 4/5 pick-and-roll? Well, instead of switching or doubling the ball-handler, I could see Coach Carlisle telling his big to go under Howard's screen and stay with him as he cuts towards the basket. This will mitigate the roll threat and force Josh Smith to create from the high-post and perimeter areas. Here's an example from a game versus the Memphis Grizzlies this season. Vince Carter ducks under Howard's quick rub and eradicates the threat of a lab. Smith is forced to take his man off the dribble, a lower percentage opportunity which the defense will take.
Also, Coach Carlisle could elect to use Aminu as Smith's primary defender and have Dirk cover Pablo Prigioni or Jason Terry. However, Coach McHale could counter by moving Dirk through off-ball screens and having Terry/Pablo attack off curls. This is a very unlikely scenario but one that I wanted to throw out and share.
Lastly, and a more likely adjustment along with my first point, would be to load the paint with a guard or smaller wing who would take away the roll threat. Obviously more crisp rotations would need to be made, but this would force Josh Smith to either take a perimeter-area shot or force the Rockets to move the ball to an open shooter.
Lately, the Rockets have been switching a ton on pick-and-rolls. Whenever Brewer, Ariza, and Josh Smith play together, the Rockets turn to the switch to help minimize the impact of certain guards and wings. In Game 2, Josh Smith was put in situations where he was forced to defend an opposing guard off a switch.
Example 1: Charlie Villanueva comes out to set the screen for Monta Ellis. Corey Brewer and Josh Smith both have outstanding length and decide to contain Ellis by switching, thus leading to Brewer picking up Charlie V.
Smith is a great perimeter defender and his great length advantage makes up for what he lacks in lateral quickness. This allows Josh to keep up with Ellis' (for a limited time) side-to-side movement and ball-theatrics. In this certain play, Smith keeps his foot on the ground and slides his feet into angles and positions, trying to direct Ellis towards the help-defense and away from the middle of the floor. When engaged, his high basketball IQ takes over and his instincts put him in great situations to force turnovers and low-percentage shot attempts.
Not only did Josh Smith excel on pick-and-roll switches, but also on denying Dirk the ball after he set picks/screens. His wingspan allows him to mitigate the likelihood of a pass to Dirk, isolated on the top of the key. With Rondo out and Barea in, Dallas will spread the floor and create spacing for Dirk to create high-percentage opportunities. Josh Smith's wingspan and patience will minimize the effects of dribble hand-offs for Ellis and Barea, as well as minimize the opportunities for Dirk to find a rhythm.
Facilitating: The Josh Smith Effect
Last but not least, I'd like to touch on how the Rockets utilize Josh Smith's most versatile quality: his passing. I discussed earlier the 4/5 pick-and-roll and the numerous other lob passes that Josh Smith made to Dwight Howard and Corey Brewer, but now I'd like to focus on how his accurate passing is and its importance to the Rockets offense moving forward.
During the regular season, and a few times so far in the series, Josh Smith had opportunities to run the fast break and create for himself and teammates. His vision and passing are welcoming signs for the second-unit, which runs a fast-paced offense, emphasizing the strengths of players like Corey Brewer who excel on the open floor.
In Game 2, he accepted the role of facilitator, which ultimately delivered the Rockets a 2-0 series lead. In the fourth quarter he had 7 assists, more than the number of assists the Mavericks had in the entire second half (6) and number of made field goals in the fourth quarter (6).
I'm going to discuss two specific plays from Game 2. The first being a lob pass from Josh Smith to Dwight Howard from the right baseline area.
In this play, the Mavericks start a zone to counteract the big-to-big passing. The zone eventually becomes man defense based on match-ups, and the Mavericks begin to overload on the strong-side. Josh Smith finds a soft-spot in the zone and Dwight rolls inside off the rub screen. Ariza finds Smith who quickly lobs it up to Dwight from the baseline for a ferocious slam dunk.
Smith's the best passer on the floor, and the Rockets are clearly finding ways to get him the ball in situations where he's able to make smart, accurate decisions with the ball.
For this last example, I don't have any analysis. I wanted to share this so you could marvel at the incredible passing ability of Josh Smith. He somehow makes the perfect bullet pass to Corey Brewer, who hits the three.
Josh Smith has been more successful in Houston than he was in Detroit. He's accepted his role as the much needed secondary facilitator. A ball-handler who will create match-up issues and off-set Harden's ball dominance to keep the defense honest. His added rim-protection, defense, and playmaking abilities have given the Rockets a much better shot at going far in the playoffs and contending for an elusive championship trophy.