WASHINGTON -- Ish Smith says some nights he doesn't really even pay attention to the player who is guarding him.
He is as humble and down-to-earth as any professional athlete you will come across, but he also has blinding speed and a tight handle. When he puts it all together, as he has lately, he has every reason to feel like one man alone can't stop him.
"I'm never really looking at the guy that's in front of me, especially if I feel like I can take the guy," Smith said.
That mindset, though, is also part of a larger strategy. He chooses to focus on other areas of the defense because that's what he wants to impact most. He has a knack for getting to the second level off-the-dribble and once he gets there, he can get open looks for teammates or feast off midrange shots. Smith is currently shooting 51.2 percent from 10-to-14 feet from the rim.
"When I get by the first guy, I'm trying to see what the weak side guys are doing. So, I'm never kind of looking at the guy that's guarding me," he said. "I'm always trying to figure out what the back side is and what they are trying to do. If they rotate, then you kick out for threes and if they don't, then you have a lay-up or a shot."
Lately, that approach has taken Smith to his peak. He set a career-high with 32 points (and eight assists) against the Nuggets on Saturday night, then followed that with 27 points against the Celtics on Monday, both in Wizards victories. He shot 64.3 percent from the field in those games.
It was the best two-game stretch of Smith's 10-year NBA career and in the fourth quarter on Monday he got 'MVP' chants from the crowd at Capital One Arena twice while at the free throw line.
"Last time that happened was probably high school," he said.
That praise was the culmination of a series of highlight plays by Smith. When he gets past the first line of defense, he often faces up with centers and power forwards. He's far too quick for them and it has led to some shifty crossovers.
"I would hate to be the other team's big man," teammate Jordan McRae said.
In fact, Smith's dribbling has become one of the more entertaining parts of this Wizards season. It has even produced some viral moments from bench reactions by his teammates.
"The same way you all watch him, we watch him. Like, 'yo this is crazy,'" forward Troy Brown Jr. said.
Perhaps it's no surprise then that Smith grew up watching AND1 mixtapes. Those led to a playing style that got him "in trouble with a lot of different coaches." He also irked his family all the time as a kid dribbling a ball through the house.
Though he is now a capable shooter, knocking down a career-high 37.1 percent of his threes this season, Smith says it took years to become one. But he's always been good at dribbling and over the years has studied some of the best to ever do it.
"I was watching some tape of [Steve Nash] last night," Smith said on Monday. "I’m always trying to get better. The game of basketball, I love to play the game and Steve did such a great job, as you know, and we know watching him. Probing, keeping his dribble, he was unbelievable in the mid-range game.
"I used to watch tons of him. The late, great Skip Prosser, my coach [at Wake Forest], he passed away. He used to sit me down my freshman year and show me tons of Tony Parker and Steve Nash clips. When you watch me play, you see a lot of that. Coaches used to tell me [to keep my dribble]."
Nash and Parker made a living off keeping their dribble while dashing in and out of the paint. Driving baseline to the other side of the basket is now known as the 'Nash Dribble.'
By moving in and out of the lane with the ball, a point guard can change the geometry of the defense and it's hard to stop.
"When he gets going downhill at your bigs he does a great job if he doesn't have a layup of just keeping his dribble alive," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "Dribbling it back out, on one on one, did that on a number of occasions. Puts your defense in a real bind."
Smith has been keeping defenses off-balance with his speed for many years now. At the moment, no team seems to have an answer for him.
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