HOUSTON – Josh Smith felt like a teenager again, ferocious and free and forever young. He had broken down Dallas' defense, a soft, vulnerable underbelly reduced to rubble. These were old times, tossing those lobs into the air, watching Dwight Howard slam through passes. Old AAU teammates in Atlanta, bringing a barrage to these Houston Rockets, bringing down the house.
"This was the Peach Jam, the Big Time tournament in Vegas," Smith told Yahoo Sports. He was remembering old AAU circuit stops for the Atlanta Celtics, laughing in the locker room now, awaiting to share a news conference podium with Howard. The fourth quarter belonged to Smith and Howard, the kind of rim runs that long ago sent these two past college and directly into millionaire NBA lives.
They had run him out of Atlanta and Detroit, and now Josh Smith had run the Dallas Mavericks out of Houston with a 2-0 series lead, with a deeper regret for failing to sign him in January.
"This is why I came here," Smith told Yahoo Sports.
The Rockets always wanted him, and Smith needed a franchise where he could flourish as himself again. After Detroit released him, Smith chose his old Atlanta Celtics teammate, Howard, over his old Oak Hill Academy point guard, Rajon Rondo. As the Rondo-Mavericks partnership further unraveled on Tuesday night, Smith strengthened his bond with Howard and James Harden, with wise, winning basketball.
"I don't need to be, but it does give people the opportunity to be reminded how versatile I can be," Smith told Yahoo Sports. "People tend to always point out the negatives in situations. Everybody has flaws. People try to magnify them [with me] more than other players. And I don't know why.
"But I stay positive. And I keep positive energy around me."
Around Rondo, the energy is toxic. The Rockets' and Mavericks' interests intersect everywhere, including with the trade pursuit for Rondo in December. Rondo's agent never wanted Rondo in Houston, partly because it would've cost another client, Patrick Beverley, his job and payday to re-sign with the Rockets this summer. In the end, the Rockets kept bidding on Rondo to try to push the price higher for the Mavericks, which was ultimately unsuccessful.
When Rondo realized his run with the Celtics was over this year, he planned to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer, league sources told Yahoo Sports. He expected a maximum contract. Once Dallas made the trade, he was open to re-signing with the Mavericks – only there are no max contract offers for Rondo on the market. Not in Dallas, nor Los Angeles. He's played his way out of that payday – not just this year, but since that terrible ACL injury two years ago.
Everyone can insist that Rondo no longer cares, that he's stopped trying, and Game 2's debacle made a case for it. Rondo is the prince of moody, yes, but he's lost with these Mavericks – and they're lost with him. Nevertheless, Rondo hasn't given up on salvaging this season, nor his Mavericks career.
On Monday evening, Josh Smith stopped over to the Toyota Center to take extra shots. There was a ball bouncing inside the arena, and as he ducked inside, Smith found a familiar face getting up shots: Rajon Rondo.
Rondo always does the work, the preparation, but everyone could see again in Game 2 that his struggles with Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle remain an immense hurdle. On the court, there were those who believed Rondo's eight-second violation for failing to cross the midcourt line was an act of protest on the coach's calling of plays. Rondo played 10 minutes, picking up fouls for slapping at James Harden, and finally a technical to start the third quarter for shoving Harden out of sheer frustration.
Carlisle banished him to the bench, choosing Raymond Felton over Rondo in the fourth quarter. Everything's pushing Rondo closer to his inevitable free-agent fleeing to the Lakers this summer. As long as the coach is back, Rondo's gone, sources told Yahoo Sports. The parting could be mutual.
When Rondo and Carlisle had it out on the bench and again in the locker room in February, teammates heard Rondo ask him: "Why the [bleep] did you bring me here?"
Of course, the Mavericks made the Rondo trade for the playoffs, and so far, the experiment is a bust. "It does look frustrating for him," Smith told Yahoo Sports. "And it's definitely not his fault."
Smith is a loyal friend, but he badly wants to advance in these playoffs, and if the Rondo dysfunction is paralyzing these Mavericks, so be it. Dallas is spiraling, losing Chandler Parsons to a knee injury that will make his return in this first-round series impossible, league sources told Yahoo Sports. For the Rockets, the moves they didn't make – matching Parsons' max offer sheet, pushing harder on a Rondo deal with Boston – turned out to be as important as the moves they did make: signing Smith and trading for Corey Brewer.
On a night when Harden could never get his rhythm, Howard was a monster with 28 points and 12 rebounds and Smith was his running partner with 15 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. These were the good old days, resurrected with the Rockets. Josh Smith will be a free agent this summer, but he doesn't want to leave here – nor does Rockets general manager Daryl Morey want to lose him.
The Rockets are desperate for Smith and Howard to deliver this kind of dominance in the playoffs, to unburden Harden and make these Rockets a force on several fronts. Houston had always wanted Josh Smith back to his Hawks days, and this was one of those nights that reminded everyone the reasons.
On his way out of the Toyota Center on Tuesday night, halfway to the Western Conference semifinals, Josh Smith felt like a teenager again. Old Atlanta Celtics teammates, old times on the AAU circuit. "Throw the ball up to the big fella, and reward him," Smith said, and this had been his way of making everyone see that they could be dangerous together, that they've got Harden's back on this playoff push. As Howard howled and Rondo sulked on Tuesday night, Smith had defied his doubters and made one more proper choice about winning basketball.
Yes, this is why Josh Smith had come here.