ORLANDO — Josh Smith won’t be coming back to All-Star Weekend in Orlando later this month – he was snubbed again — so he left his All-Star Game on the court Friday night.
Take that, Dwight Howard. Take that, Orlando Magic.
Howard may have been the best player in this game, but it was his old buddy Smith who played the best Friday, making sure the Atlanta Hawks maintained the recent stranglehold on their Southeast Division rival.
“It’s a travesty that Josh wasn’t picked for the All-Star Game,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “I think you could see why I’m saying that.”
Smith, the talented but previously temperamental power forward, had 23 points, 19 rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots in the 89-87 overtime victory, leading with his versatility. Howard had 18 points, 18 rebounds, one block and no assists.
They don’t guard each other, but they have been playing together and drawing comparisons since playing AAU Basketball together in Atlanta during their high school days.
“It’s good to do this against an old friend, and doing it here, too, but I should be an All-Star. I’m not happy about not making it, but that’s the way it goes – again,” Smith said. “You just deal with it and move on.”
Smith was overlooked by the Eastern Conference coaches, who picked the reserves earlier this week. Instead of Smith, Andre Iguodala of Philadelphia, Paul Pierce of Boston and Luol Deng of Chicago were picked as reserve forwards.
Against Chicago earlier this season, Smith beat the Bulls almost single-handedly with a dazzling display of his versatility. He had 25 points, five rebounds, five assists, six blocks and four steals, becoming the first NBA player in 18 years to reach those numbers in those categories. It’s what he’s been doing all season.
The Hawks are 7-0 this season when Smith scores more than 20 points.
The Hawks should have won the game in regulation, especially after Smith hit back-to-back baskets for the 77-70 lead. The Magic never led in the fourth quarter, only tying it at 78 for the first time with 1.3 seconds remaining when Howard dunked a missed shot by Jameer Nelson.
But the Hawks didn’t flinch in overtime, playing like a veteran team that expected to win. Joe Johnson hit back-to-back baskets, and the Magic missed their last three 3-point shots.
“We’ve been playing with a certain kind of toughness and grittiness,” Smith said. “We expect to win now. And I expect to win now. And that always wasn’t the case. Early in my career, we’d lose by 25-30 points here. But I think we took a big step against them in the playoffs.”
After losing to the Magic in the first round two seasons ago, the Hawks upset them in the 2011 rematch. They had beaten Orlando three of the four regular-season meetings, then beat them in a six-game series. It was that surprising first-round loss to the Hawks last spring that prompted Howard to ask for a trade, the request that has rocked the franchise.
With the prospect of losing Howard, either in a trade before the deadline or as a free agent this summer, the Magic have been as inconsistent as Smith was earlier in his career. They have looked very good at times, usually when they are hitting 3-point shots. But they also have looked very bad.
They beat the Lakers 92-80 earlier this season, then went into a four-game skid in which they lost by an average of 15 points. They bounced back and drilled the Heat on Wednesday, leading from start to finish. Then they failed again against the Hawks, laboring to score and being careless with the ball. They had 17 turnovers Friday, a problem that has haunted them all season.
Howard received his eighth technical foul in the third quarter, frustrated by Hawks center Zaza Pachulia, who plays like a bulldog against him. The Hawks have dominated the Magic recently by limiting Howard without needing too much double coverage.
Howard is ahead of last season’s technical foul pace when he finished with a league-high 18. The one-game suspensions start this season at 13.
The Hawks (18-9) remain ahead of the Magic (16-11), despite playing without center/forward Al Horford the past month. He won’t be back until mid-April at the earliest, but that hasn’t dampened Smith’s confidence.
“We’re ready to take it to the next level,” Smith said. “I feel good about where we’re at. I feel good about my game. People know what I can do.”