AUBURN HILLS — At times, Josh Smith is one of the most spectacular players in basketball. At other times, he’s a perplexing disaster on the floor.
Saturday, he was all of that in the final 30 seconds of Detroit’s win over Phoenix.
Smith started his adventure with the score tied at 105 and the shot clock running down. Will Bynum had lost control of the ball driving to the basket, but managed to fling it out to Smith on the left wing. He stepped back and threw up a contested, off-balance shot that shouldn’t have had a chance, but it dropped cleanly through the net.
"We did everything right on that play," Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek said. "We stopped the penetration, we knocked the ball loose and we had someone on the shooter. Josh just made the shot anyway. That’s a really bad break, especially in the last 30 seconds of a game."
That made Smith the hero, but he turned around and proceeded to have a disasterous defensive possession. After Leandro Barbosa missed a tying 3-pointer, P.J. Tucker beat Smith to the rebound, and after Tucker missed the put-back, Smith could only fumble the ball out-of-bounds with 7.8 seconds to go.
That meant Phoenix was going to need their own desperation 3-pointer, and Gerald Green missed it … but Smith fouled him in the process. Green, an 83 percent free-throw shooter, knocked down all three shots to tie the game at 108.
Smith had gone from hero to goat — although he didn’t like that phrase when it was used during his post-game interview — but he still had one card left to play. Smith took the inbounds pass, and thinking about the brick he had shot with a chance to tie the game earlier this week in New York, he was driving all the way.
"I settled for that jumper in New York when I could have gotten to the basket, so I knew I had to be aggressive this time," he said.
The Suns were ready for him, and Smith was blocked away from the rim. With the clock running out, he took the only shot he had — a left-handed runner from the right side of the paint. It was a terrible shot, violating every principle of fundamental basketball, so it dropped through the net to give the Pistons a 110-108 lead.
Smith still wasn’t done — he defended Green’s 3-point at the buzzer without incident — but he eventually made enough positive plays to give Detroit its first home win since mid-December.
"That’s just NBA basketball," Smith said about his wild adventure. "It is always going to be a game of runs, but we made one more play on top of them and that won us the game."
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Pistons game without the fourth quarter turning into utter chaos. Detroit led 89-79 going into the fourth, but Phoenix scored seven points in the first two minutes to get right back into the game.
For most of the last month, that would have led to a complete meltdown and a double-digit loss, but Detroit stopped Phoenix’s run at 13-3, leaving the game tied at 92 with 6:55 to play.
The Pistons then seemed to put the game away, going up by eight over the next four minutes, but Phoenix’s 3-point shooting brought them right back into the game. They tied it on Tucker’s 3-pointer with 51.2 seconds left, setting the stage for Smith’s last-minute circus act.
"It’s unreal, but that’s the way fourth quarters have been going around here," Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks said. "They made shots, and we had some wide-open looks that we couldn’t knock down. That turned everything in their favor, but fortunately, Josh made those last two."
There’s not much question about why the Pistons struggle late in games — they stop doing the things that made them successful in the first half. Saturday, Brandon Jennings had a spectacular first half, tying Isiah Thomas’ team record with 16 assists. He didn’t have a turnover and added six points on eight shots.
In the second half, though, Jennings went back to the shoot-first guard that has frustrated coaches and fans all season. He only had two assists, both in the third quarter, and went 1-for-6 from the floor with three turnovers. In the fourth quarter, he was 0-for-4 without an assist.
"Sometimes in those fourth quarters, Brandon is along out there as far as creating, and that’s tough," said Will Bynum, who had 14 second-points as Detroit went with a three-guard lineup. "We’ve got to help him out, spread the floor and create opportunities."
Jennings and Smith both look to shoot when games get tight down the stretch, and bad decisions have cost the Pistons several times this season. That could have happened again on Saturday — they were a combined 1-for-5 in the fourth with a minute to play — but Smith was able to salvage the night with his final-minute offense.