Surviving the Suns
Smith’s last-minute heroics lift Pistons to 110-108 thriller over Phoenix
He was better on Saturday.
Oh, the numbers weren’t quite as gaudy, though they were still the stuff of superstars: 25 points, requiring just 16 shots, 11 rebounds, five assists.
But the Pistons might have won at Philadelphia without his heroics. Against Phoenix on Saturday at The Palace, with a five-game home losing streak and the weight of second-half failures bearing down on the Pistons’ collective shoulders, Smith stacked one big play atop another down the stretch to deny a Suns comeback that appeared almost inevitable.
Smith hit a triple with the shot-block buzzer about to blare with 27 seconds remaining to break a 105-all tie, then after his brush foul with four seconds left allowed Gerald Green to tie the game with three free throws, Smith bulled his way through traffic to score on a tough layup.
“Tough shot, but that’s what big-time players do,” Will Bynum said. “And that’s what he did tonight.”
Smith’s big plays started long before the final 30 seconds, though. He hustled downcourt to block a Goran Dragic layup from behind in the third quarter, the type of infectious hustle that rallies a team through the type of malaise that had gripped the Pistons since the Christmas break. When Phoenix erased a 10-point deficit after three quarters in the first five minutes of the fourth, Smith fueled a 7-0 run by grabbing an offensive rebound and feeding a wide-open Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for a three, then fought for a defensive rebound and fired a beautiful outlet pass to the rookie for a layup seconds later.
"I wanted to be aggressive when I caught it I didn’t want to settle; I just took it and drove the basketball."- Josh Smith on the final basket
Full game quotes
The play was designed for Greg Monroe, who bedeviled Phoenix in the post to the tune of 20 points and 12 rebounds, but Channing Frye denied the entry pass with a risky fronting maneuver. Smith was fed about 20 feet from the basket and wasted no time putting the ball on the floor and attacking.
“Last time I had the opportunity in New York, I settled for a jump shot,” Smith said. “I wanted to be aggressive. I learned from that play that I made. I wanted to try to put the onus on the officials and I was able to get a good look at it. When I caught it, I didn’t want to settle. I took it in and drove the basketball.”
Smith wasn’t the only Piston to put up wondrous numbers. For the second straight game, Smith, Monroe and Andre Drummond (13 points, 13 boards, five blocked shots, three steals) all recorded double-doubles. The offense clicked beautifully in the first half, driven by Brandon Jennings, who matched Isiah Thomas’ franchise records for assists in a quarter (11) and a half (16). He finished with 18 assists against just three turnovers in 42 minutes, adding eight points and eight rebounds.
“He was a distributor tonight,” Smith said. “We ran the floor with him and he was able to find us.”
After finding success with a Jennings-Bynum backcourt at Philadelphia, Mo Cheeks went back to it. In fact, he went down the stretch matching Phoenix’s extreme small-ball lineups, using Smith at center, Kyle Singler and Rodney Stuckey or Caldwell-Pope at forward and Bynum and Jennings at guard.
Cheeks admitted there was concern with that lineup on offense with so many players stationed out of position, but he felt obliged to use a unit that could challenge the 3-point shooting Jeff Hornacek fielded. The Suns took 35 triples, made 13 and had eight different players attempt at least one triple.
“They were making shots and in transition they had guys popping up for threes,” Cheeks said. “So we had to make a decision to put five smalls and match up. For the most part, we stopped the part we wanted to stop.”
The Pistons realize they gave up a lot of ground in the East while they sputtered to six straight losses over the last two weeks, but winning a back-to-back set while figuring out a few things about lineup combinations and managing to stem momentum once it had turned on them to win at home is a starting point, they feel, for a run of their own.
“We didn’t get down on ourselves,” Smith said. “We were able to stay together and we all had confidence in each other to get the job done and we did it tonight. This is a great game for us to be able to see how mentally strong we can be. We’ve just got to able to reflect on these games and apply it to games we have in front of us.”