This game reminds me of Josh Smith.
After the Detroit Pistons cut Smith midseason, the Rockets picked him up and proceeded to go 13-7 over their next 20 games. Smith looked like a rejuvenated player in Houston and the Rockets had another player who could create some offense when James Harden went to the bench. Houston was playing well and looked like a contender, and that was due to the addition of Josh Smith.
But that was only one side of the story. The Pistons reacted to the waiving of Smith by playing their absolute best basketball of the season. The 5-23 Pistons won their next seven games. They went 12-7 over the 19 games after Smith was cut. Detroit was playing well and looked like a playoff team, and that was due to the subtraction of Josh Smith.
The dueling narratives became difficult for most of the media to handle. On the one hand, the story of “Oh look the Pistons are playing so well now. Josh Smith must be a cancer for sure!” was some low-hanging fruit. And to be fair the connection was easy. Smith left and the Pistons started winning. So he was a cancer for sure, right?
Well, on the other hand, the Rockets were rolling too. They were dealing with some injuries and some back-to-backs, but they were winning too. And Smith was playing well! He was shooting a decent percentage from distance (33%), which was markedly better than the 25% he shot during his 18 months in Detroit. He was spelling Harden as the team’s primary ball-handler and not taking too many shots.
So on January 31, with the Rockets 13-7 and the Pistons 12-7 since the Smith cut/signing, the teams met in Detroit. And boy were the Pistons fans excited about it. Detroit fans delighted in booing Smith every time he touched the ball. Dwight Howard was injured, so Houston started Joey Dorsey. As you can expect from just that sentence alone, the Pistons won comfortably. Pistons fans had the last laugh and got to point at the game as vindication for the waive-and-stretch. There was finally irrefutable proof. Josh Smith was officially a cancer!
Except, he wasn’t.
Smith played fairly poorly in that game. He would play poorly again when the teams met a few weeks later. Houston won that game, handing the Pistons their fifth straight loss en route to a 10-game losing streak. But Smith was a key cog to the Rockets team during the slog that is the regular season, and it didn’t take a genius to see it. He came off the bench for most of the season and did plenty of the dirty work for the Rockets on both ends of the court. Of course, his most famous moments as a Rocket would come later in the playoffs, but no one knew that at the time.
Detroit finished 32-50 and missed the playoffs. Houston finished 56-26 and made the Western Conference Finals after overcoming a 3-1 deficit against Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers.
Tonight’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder has its own storylines. Russell Westbrook is hurt. Ditto for Andre Roberson. Eric Gordon is questionable too. The Rockets are digging themselves out of the 1-5 hole they worked their way into, and the Thunder are trying to rise into the upper tier of Western Conference teams early in the season. James Harden used to play for OKC. Patrick Patterson used to play for Houston. (Okay, that last one isn’t a big storyline.)
It won’t matter. Tonight will be about Carmelo Anthony. The Thunder were a dysfunctional group last season and it showed. They grabbed the fifth seed before bowing out to Ricky Rubio and the Utah Jazz in six games. Their fans blame Melo. He came to the team late in the offseason. He refused to come off the bench. He couldn’t lead the bench units. He had no chemistry with the team. He was a locker room cancer. He was just Josh Smith in a different uniform.
Except, he isn’t.
Tip-off is at 7pm CT on TNT