Hawks beat Pistons in Smith's return to Atlanta
ATLANTA -- Josh Smith tried to downplay his return to Atlanta as much as possible. It's one thing to get drafted by a team and play your first nine seasons as a pro there. It's another to be a native of that same city. Some professional athletes can easily detach themselves from their former city. Not Smith. In his return to Atlanta, he found that once the game started on Wednesday that he could detach himself from the criticism that dogged him during his years here in a poor performance as the Hawks prevailed over Smith's Detroit Pistons, 93-85. Smith seemed relieved after the game that it was over. "Yeah, yeah, it's over with," Smith said with an exhausted smile after he totaled 11 points on 5-for-15 shooting and grabbed six rebounds. It's under my belt. We can all move on and focus on everything else that revolves around basketball except for me coming home." Most professional athletes can sell their homes -- if they even owned one in the city in which they played -- cut ties and move on from one place to the next. Smith talked 75 minutes before tipoff about how excited he was to see his parents, his friends, sleep in his own bed. He mentioned how he missed his dogs and his mother's cooking. He said the whole ordeal held a surreal quality for him. He admitted being anxious and confessed that the game did have special meaning for him. "Understanding that my teammates know how important this game is to me so I'm going to be able to stay within my comfort zone and play my game," he said of his mental approach. He would not allow himself to show any bitterness, even if he feels any at the Hawks' decision not to offer him a contract when he hit free agency this past summer, as he revealed earlier this week in a local radio interview. He said he had no hard feelings and acknowledged that pro basketball is a business. He and the Hawks have moved on. He signed a four-year, $54-million contract with the Pistons. With that kind of money in one's pocket, it would be hard for anyone to be bitter, even a diva professional athlete. The Hawks hired a new coach and play a different style of basketball, a motion offense that Smith, who is best in transition, would not appear to fit as well. Formerly, the Hawks tailored their style of play around their talent. Now, under new general manager Danny Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer, they appear more intent to mold their talent around a style of play, a motion offense in which dribbling the air out of the ball -- too often the Hawks' old style -- is contrary to all of its principles. Ferry also prizes flexibility in terms of contracts and one the size and length of Smith's is not exactly what he has in mind as he builds the roster. Ironically, Smith complained on that same radio interview that his two former coaches, Mike Woodson and Larry Drew, didn't call enough plays for him. Maybe he thought a big contract in Detroit would give him free rein to do whatever he wanted. However, playing for another old-school former NBA point guard in Mo Cheeks, as Woodson and Drew were, he has found that is not the case. Smith drew the ire of fans in Atlanta for his undisciplined three-point shots. That vice has grown even more out of control during his young stay in Detroit to the point where Cheeks benched him recently. Whereas the Philips Arena faithful audibly cringed with dread when Smith would fire up a three while playing for the Hawks, on Wednesday, they pursued a different tactic. With Smith poised to shoot three-pointers in the first quarter, the crowd taunted him. Smith obliged and when both of his first two attempts bounded awry, the crowd jeered. In all, he finished 0-for-4 from three-point territory, his 11 points 5.5 below his average this season. While Smith said he was "really not concerned" as to what the fans' reaction to him might be, it must have grated on him. He handled the situation with equanimity. "It was what I expected," he said. "Kind of some cheering, some boos. But it's all good, though." As he said, there were those among the crowd who were pulling for Smith. He did a lot for the franchise in helping it to make the playoffs for the first time in nine years. There were three straight appearances in the second round. A smattering of polite applause could be heard when he was introduced to start the game. The same was true when he made a field goal here or there. The game provided an almost clinical illustration as to why the Hawks elected to part ways with him while signing Paul Millsap, a much more efficient player, to a much more economical contract (two years, $19 million). Millsap made 8-of-14 shots and finished with 19 points as the Hawks, who improved to 7-5, shot 50.7 percent as a team. The Pistons, who fell to 4-7, shot 40.2 percent as Smith went 33 percent from the field. Smith explained his off night by saying, "Took the shots I normally take. They just weren't able to drop tonight." Another Atlanta athlete, Tony Gonzalez, returned last year to the city where he began his career and played for 12 seasons, Kansas City. Gonzalez spoke candidly of how overwhelmed he was by the emotions. Smith was asked before the game if he were emotionally prepared for what he was about to face. "Right now I'm just trying to simplify everything," he said. "Stay focused on preparing for an Atlanta Hawk team that they have a deep roster. They rotate in a lot of people. They play hard. They got a good motion offense and just being able to focus on what we need to do to make it stationary." Smith's father, formerly a fixture at home games, was not present on Wednesday. Smith said he was a little under the weather and that it was the first game in Atlanta that he could recall his father not being present for. Maybe that explained the off night. Or maybe returning home was harder to handle than Smith wanted to admit.