Detroit — Dressed in slacks and a sport coat, Ish Smith felt powerless. While his teammates struggled through their toughest part of the season, he could only sit back and watch, the best-dressed cheerleader on a Pistons squad that needed its difference-maker.
Smith, recovering from a groin injury, could only watch from the bench and lend his vocal support. The Pistons had started the season 13-9 through Dec. 5 and in the 23-point loss at Milwaukee, Smith sustained a groin injury that turned the Pistons’ season.
Night after night, during a 19-game stretch, Smith put on a sport coat and a happy face, masking the frustration he was feeling knowing that the Pistons were weaker without him. They went 5-14 in that initial stretch after the injury, while Smith rehabbed and recovered, each day looking promising, then less so.
“It was almost to the point that I contemplated surgery because it was so frustrating. I wondered why I wasn’t getting better — even when I came back and played. I kept going with it, resting it, (treating) it, icing it,” Smith told The Detroit News. “It was frustrating because one day it felt good and the next day it bothered me. It was different than an elbow or shoulder, which will eventually heal. With that, it was annoying, and I was wondering, ‘Am I going to be (healthy)?’”
During a tepid December and January without Smith — which coincided with their toughest section of the schedule — the Pistons went 7-18. Smith returned for three games, with two wins, but aggravated the injury and missed the next six games while the team went 2-4.
In the games Smith has played, the Pistons are 26-14, a whopping .650 winning percentage. Since his return on Feb. 2, the Pistons have gotten back on the winning track, with a 12-4 mark.
It’s no coincidence.
One could argue Smith is as vital to the team as any of the starters, because there is no one else who brings his skill set: a rare blend of speed, quickness, athleticism and savvy. Beyond Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, Smith is a force that other teams have to game-plan against.
“I’ve always thought he’s been undervalued since Day 1 in the league. He’s on your white board and scouting report,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “He’s an X-factor, and when he was (injured) for that stretch, that hurt Detroit. You have Reggie and him, and it’s a really good balance with two different styles of point guards.
“When he comes in the game, your antenna goes up as a coach.”
At 6-feet, 175 pounds, Smith is not an imposing physical force. In fact, he’s struggled to find a footing in the league, having played for 10 different teams in nine seasons. The three-year contract he signed with the Pistons in the summer of 2016 was the first long-term deal he had in his career.
He’s found a home in Detroit as the energy boost off the bench, changing the pace of the game and acting as the spark plug, augmenting Jackson’s methodical halfcourt play. It’s almost a universal role, that’s flourished under former coach Stan Van Gundy and now under first-year coach Dwane Casey.
“His skill set brings that; his speed and aggressiveness with the ball and his defensive intensity," Casey said. "He sets the tone and changes the game. He’s a very important part of what we do in the fit with the second unit. He can go with Jackson with the first unit just to give ball-handling and put Jackson in the shooting role. It helps us when he does that.”
More than numbers
It’s sometimes easier to measure Smith’s impact qualitatively with the eye test rather than quantitatively with stats. He’s posting modest numbers: 8.7 points and 3.5 assists and hitting 35 percent on 3-pointers, but his benefit is more far-reaching and often is overlooked by laymen.
“Not with us, it doesn’t. I don’t think people really understand how important it is to have a backup point guard who can come in and affect the game the way he does,” Pistons assistant coach Sidney Lowe said. “It’s not about his numbers; it’s what the other guys get from him. When you play with someone like that, you know he’s going to push it. You have a choice — you can run with him or you’ll be behind him. The guys he’s with know to run and they’ll get opportunities.”
In a rare scoring outburst, Smith, 30, generated his personal highlight reel, when he had a season-high 22 points against the Heat on Feb. 23. It’s not just about himself, though. Smith’s badge comes of honor comes from making the others around him — including Luke Kennard and Langston Galloway, who have gotten hot since Smith’s return — better.
“He makes that second unit. It’s not so much that we don’t have guys capable of breaking their man — it’s just really hard to guard speed,” Griffin said. “He’s the type of player who changes the tempo of the game, whether he’s really pushing it or not.
“Some games, it’s scoring, some it’s passing and some it’s putting pressure on the other team and giving them a different look.”
It’s the third straight season that the Pistons have had injuries at point guard, with Jackson missing 67 games in the last two years combined. Smith, on the other hand, had missed just one game in his two previous seasons.
That added to his frustration.
“When you’re hurt, you just feel like you’re just there and not part (of the team). You have to know you’re getting better. A lot of days with my groin, I wasn’t even doing anything — just sitting,” Smith said. “When you’re coming back from an ankle or knee, you see people working hard, and some days I just had ice and that was frustrating. It’s a blessing to feel good. That was the tough part.
“Seeing Jackson go through it, he was constantly motivating us and talking to us. It helped me when I did the same thing. I have to be motivated and be there for my teammates, even when I’m not out there on the floor.”
When Smith moved into the starting role for Jackson, he was solid, but the increased minutes didn’t necessarily translate to more wins. His bigger impact is making the second unit better, giving the Pistons an advantage.
“The beauty of him — we all know his athleticism, quickness, competitiveness — is that he’s embraced (his role),” Bulls interim coach Jim Boylen said. “You have a selfless guy who could be a starter who is honoring his role as a sub and is playing winning basketball. That’s the message I try to send to our guys.
“It’s that (attitude of being) selfless, do whatever for the team and help us win and give whatever I can give. His spirit is about as good as any player I’ve been around. He’s just a bright-eyed guy.”
Smith could have been dealt at the February trade deadline because his contract expires after the season. It’s unlikely the Pistons would have considered moving him, because of his value to their playoff hopes.
After the season, things could get dicey, as Smith could be due a raise — and given his fit with the team, the only issue could be other teams willing to pay more for his services. For his part, Smith admits he likes his situation and he’s starting to grow roots in Detroit.
“This is a good flow. We have a good connection here and it’s working. I’m excited to see how it’s going to work toward the end of the year because I think we can keep getting better,” he said. “I love it here. The fans are receptive since I’ve been here, and they appreciate the way I play. It’s cool; it feels like home.”
Pistons vs. Heat
Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami
TV/radio: FSD/97.1 FM
Outlook: The Pistons (34-32) suffered one of their worst defeats of the season Monday against the Nets, but have another critical game against the Heat (31-35) who are just behind, in eighth, three games behind in the East playoff race.