The Nuggets are 2-0 in the Ish Smith era.
Ever since Smith returned from a calf injury that sidelined him for most of November, Denver is undefeated. The NBA journeyman, who’s played for a record 13 different franchises, was key in both wins.
In the Nuggets’ 129-113 victory over the Rockets Monday in Denver, Smith tallied 10 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 steals and 1 block in 26 minutes off the bench. Denver outscored Houston by 16 points with him on the floor and Michael Malone awarded Smith the Nuggets’ Defensive Player of the Game chain, which is given to Denver’s most valuable defender that night.
After the win, I asked Denver’s coach this: What’s the biggest thing that Smith has given the Nuggets over the last two games?
“Pure point guard. Just a guy that gets everybody else involved,” Malone said. “He goes out there tonight, and in 26 minutes he has eight assists. He finds guys, he makes plays, he gets off the ball. Him and DJ in pick-and-rolls, having a big on the rim, that dynamic roller. I’ll be honest man, we gave Ish the Defensive Player of the Game chain tonight. It could have easily gone to Bruce. I thought Bruce was great on Jalen Green, who’s a hell of a player. But I thought Ish’s on-ball pressure, his containment. And for a guy with his stature, he does a great job of contesting shots. Let’s go back to the Clipper game when he blocked Norman Powell’s shot, which led to a transition dunk. Ish does all the right things, all the little things on defense. And you trust him out there. It’s been great having him back these last two games.”
Smith chatted with DNVR late Monday night in the Nuggets’ locker room.
DNVR: Congrats on the DPOG Chain.
Smith: Yeah, anytime you’re recognized for your hard work, it’s a blessing. It truly is.
DNVR: Your coach was just saying that he trusts you on defense. You’re always doing the right thing and in the right spot.
Smith: I’ve kind of been in the league a long time. You know every read and stuff like that. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be perfect, but you’ve always got to play hard, and I think that’s the biggest thing. I think that’s what we did tonight. That’s a talented team. You let them get going, it can be a long night.
DNVR: Does anything that an offense or defense throws at you ever surprise you anymore?
Smith: Yeah, I mean you see stuff. You know, when you watch Nikola there are a lot of things that can surprise you. I thought tonight he (Smith gestures to Nikola Jokic a couple of lockers to his left) came out and was like, ‘I’m going to dominate.’ I don’t know if you saw that. He just said he was going to dominate.
DNVR: Like his 16 points in the third?
Smith: He was freaking unbelievable, man. And Jamal did his thing in the first half. Those two are very, very special. And then we defended in the second half. That was good.
DNVR: What’s your perspective on Joker now that you’re his teammate?
Smith: That he can dominate whenever he wants to. He’s so many guys in one person. He can dominate inside like Shaq, and then he’s Chris Paul as a passer. Then defensively, he can be really good. He really can be. He’s always in the right position. He’s got great hands. He’s special.
DNVR: Is there another gear that this team can get to?
Smith: There’s obviously another gear. You don’t want to be peaking early in the season. So for us, we’ve got to gradually get to that level. But for us, coach Malone’s not lying, especially when we’re trying to win as big as we’re trying to win. We’ve got to bring our defense for four quarters. We can score the basketball, I think you’ve seen that. If we can travel our defense on the road and then at home, you know, make that commitment for four quarters, we’re going to be really, really good.
DNVR: What’s your feel for the makeup of this team?
Smith: We’ve got a lot of talent. Coach can pick anybody off the bench, and they play huge. CB (Smith motions to Christian Braun sitting directly to his right), when coach calls his numbers, he plays big-time. Vlat’s been playing big-time. D-Reed came in and played well. Zeke. We’ve got a lot, a lot of talent. And then our starting five to me is one of the best in the league. We just have to play hard, play great defense, and I think we’ll have a lot of success this year.
DNVR: Does the culture here feel different than other locker rooms that you’ve been in?
Smith: Guys are becoming more talkative. Guys are having more fun, and enjoying each other. It’s been fun. It’s been cool. I think at first, we were kind of getting to know each other because it’s eight new guys. Now guys are getting more comfortable, getting to know each other, talking, laughing, and enjoying each other. When Nikola goes out there and dominates like he does, or DJ catches a lob, or Jamal gets it rolling, we’re all celebrating each other. And that’s what we’ve got to do. I think people just think you go out there, you play, you go home. No, you need camaraderie to win big.
DNVR: This seems like another really unselfish and selfless team, and that’s been the case here for the last couple of seasons.
Smith: Yes, and I think it starts with him (Smith looks directly at Jokic). I really do. When your superstar, your best player, is unselfish, it permeates throughout the entire team. It makes everyone else want to be unselfish.