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Getting obsessive with Josh Smith's game-winning dunk

Mar 25, 2010, 2:28 PM EDT

Last night, Josh Smith won the internet with a game-winning tip dunk as time expired. This everyone agrees on. What isn’t as clear is which Magic player screwed up to give Smith a clear run to the rim for the game-winner. The general consensus is that Rashard Lewis, the Magic player closest to Smith, messed up by failing to box him out. 

However, there have been some dissenting opinions. In response to David Thorpe’s opinion on TrueHoop, Stephen Danley noted that Lewis and Jameer Nelson were responsible for boxing out three guys on the weak side because Dwight Howard had rotated over to play help-side defense. This fellow directly blames Howard for the mistake, and he uses tables to illustrate it. On NBA Playbook, one of Sebastian Pruiti’s stills of the play makes it look pretty clear that Rashard should have found Josh Smith and boxed him out. 
After looking at the video many, many times, here are some of my conclusions:
-First of all, this was a bit of a freak occurrence. Not only does the ball carom off the rim perfectly for Smith’s dunk, but almost nobody else in the league is capable of making that play. When the shot went up with 1.9 seconds to play, Lewis is standing with his toes on the charge circle as Smith stands at the three-point line. When it hits the rim with 1.3 seconds away, Smith is still a good two to three steps outside of the paint. A second later, game over. Of the thousands of times Rashard Lewis has boxed a man out in his life, he’s probably faced very few opponents capable of swooping in that quickly for a tip dunk after starting at the three-point line. Yes, Smith already has one tip-dunk game winner this season, but Lewis had about a half a second to remember this and override his instinct, which is that there was no chance Smith was going to be able to get to that rebound. Like the victims of a LeBron James chase-down block, Lewis got burned by letting instinct take over and forgetting the athletic capabilities of the player behind him. 
-Second, when the shot goes up, Lewis and Nelson aren’t actually responsible for three men, because Marvin Williams is hanging out beyond the three-point line and never comes inside of it. In this case, Jameer’s responsibility should have been to box out Mario West while Lewis makes sure he puts a body on Smith. Nelson is the smallest man on the floor anyways, and doesn’t quite get over to box out West, who is on the charge circle when the ball hits the rim. Lewis moves ever so slightly to his left towards West, giving Smith the window he needs to blow by Lewis’ right shoulder and dunk it through. 
Ultimately, my final opinion is that there’s no one mistake that made this possible for the Hawks. Howard ended up roaming a little too far over. Nelson didn’t box out his man as well as he could have. Lewis didn’t make it a priority to know where the best athlete on the Hawks was when the ball went up. The ball bounced perfectly to one of the few guys capable of making the game-winning play. It’s one of those things that will happen over the course of an 82-game season. Unfortunately for the Magic, it happened to them this time. 

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