Josh Smith

The Atlanta Hawks struggled against a Houston Rockets team playing without James Harden but with a lot of fire, but the team with the best record in the NBA came back from a big deficit in a huge fourth quarter and left Josh Smith with a bitter taste in his mouth.

Why? Because Smith, playing for the Hawks until leaving in free agency in 2013, got booed by the home fans. He answered them back with his reactions after hitting 3-pointers. But the last laugh? The Hawks were good enough to let their fans feel like they just beat someone personally.

The Hawks scored 32 points to the Rockets’ 15 in the fourth quarter, coming from 18 points behind to win 104-96, on a day in which they struggled from beyond the arc, shooting just 27.6%. But Jeff Teague was consistent the whole way through, leading his team with 25 points and the Rockets’ touch from long range went cold in the final moments of the game. When all you have are 3’s or layups, the Daryl Morey manra, suddenly not having James Harden and Dwight Howard on the floor when things become difficult is hard to hide.

Besides Teague Al Horford had a very good game, scoring 18 points, adding 8 rebounds and 3 blocks to the effort. Paul Millsap finished with a 16-14 double double and Dennis Schroder scored 16 points off the bench, leading the team with 8 assists.

The Rockets looked like a mess, but a successful one thanks to their defense, which held up for about three quarters. Jason Terry was hot for most of the game with 21 points off the bench, Terrence Jones scored 18 and Josh Smith added 14 off the bench himself. But overall the Rockets looked just like you’d expect from a team without their all-can-do guard that has everything go through him on most nights, and couldn’t find a way to overcome that absence in the end.

Smith called Hawks fans as fickle and bandwagoners. He didn’t expect to be booed and jeered by them. Maybe he never led them to great heights during his near-decade with the team, but he did a pretty good job all things considered. It would make sense for Pistons fans to boo him, but in Atlanta? That was slightly surprising, although he didn’t get to have his revenge on those suddenly showering him with so much hate.

Fickle or not, the Hawks have the best record in the league at 48-12, already clinching a playoff spot. Last season they waited until the 80th game to mark their postseason berth with a 37-43 record. The Rockets remain at third in the West although now give the Portland Blazers a chance to tie records. It was a good test to see which players can rise to the occasion when Harden isn’t playing or having a bad day. No one really did anything to warrant changing the plan once Harden gets back.

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