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Woodson doing good job of handling Smith

by Peter Vecsey

NEW YORK — Before Saturday night’s come-from-behind victory over the Pistons, I wasn’t sensing much love in Dixie, where Josh Smith and Hawks coach Mike Woodson dropped the verbal gloves at halftime of Friday night’s seven-point loss to the Bobcats. It was shades of two seasons ago when the coach banished his starting forward to the locker room for questioning a decision to make Tyronn Lue the game-winning (missing) shooter in regulation against the 76ers at Philly.

This time the friction, from what I observed on TV — and later got confirmed — revolved around Smith taking an unsavory long-distance shot near intermission with Atlanta down nine.

How do I know it was an unsavory shot?

When you only hit one of every four from that range (which is down at the very bottom of the list of those who qualify) every 3-point attempt is uncalled for.

Over nearly five seasons Woodson had challenged Smith about his outpost shot selection. Josh is forever being counseled to take his 206-cm freaky athleticism into the paint where he can do the most damage to the opposition vs. the Hawks.

Then again, truth be known (and another weakness identified), Smith is the NBA’s worst free-throw shooter (55.1 percent; before hitting 7-for-9 against Detroit) on a team ranked 29th of 30 in that category. Yes, worse than Shaq; so, you can’t blame him for hanging out on the perimeter and avoiding contact.

OK, so Smith disobeyed a standing order and ruined an otherwise productive first half (13 points) by jacking up a nasty springer. To his credit, he retrieved the dry heave. However, instead of finding one of two open Hawks, he compounded his first fracture by backing down into traffic and lobbing up a sleazy half-hook.

According to those on the fringe of the scene in the dressing room, Woodson scolded Smith and stamped those two shots as selfish. Temperatures rose, words became heated and the player was informed he would be sitting out the second half.

Smith spent the remaining 24 minutes in the middle of the bench with a towel draped over his back as the Hawks closed to within 82-80, only to lose, 98-91.

I haven’t seen such obscene body language since my parakeet flipped me the bird.

Afterward, Woodson held a team meeting to clear the air. Smith was told he would be in the lineup Saturday at home (eighth sellout of season) against the Pistons, who had won four straight without (back ache) Allen Iverson before falling 87-83.

When Carmelo Anthony refused George Karl’s instructions to come out of a game last week, the Nuggets suspended him for a game. Admittedly, this situation wasn’t remotely as insubordinate.

Still, while I recognize Smith’s portability across the stats sheet (15.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 2.4 assists per game) and understand Woodson’s reluctance to penalize someone on the front end of a five-year, $58 million contract (courtesy of Memphis that Atlanta matched) any more than he did, I feel the same way about Josh as I do about Nate Robinson:

I wouldn’t want to coach either player.

Woodson has no other choice and he’s handling it well. When Smith needs discipline, Woodson dispenses it in proportion to the transgression. When Smith earns approval, Woodson bestows it.

Moments after last night’s final buzzer, Woodson was the first to reach Smith to shake his hand for the maturity he showed and a job (19 points, 12 rebounds) well done.

* * * * *

Utah made it 10 wins in a row Friday night, roaring back from a 19-point second-quarter hole to whip visiting Denver by six. The Jazz began a five-game-in-eight-day expedition on Sunday with a win over Toronto.

“Is it too late to make a comeback?” Karl Malone asked the Republican Party.

* * * * *

Seems a Scottsdale judge looked over Charles Barkley’s “hard-labor” sentence — all of 10 nights for driving drunk (while en route to support Arizona’s lady-of-the-evening economy) and knocked a week off (36 hours total time served) if he completes an alcohol treatment program.

That’s great; in other words, Barkley isn’t seeking help on his own because he damn well needs it, he’s doing it as part of a plea bargain.

I’ve officially resigned as Scottsdale’s unofficial mayor.

Barkley began his “incarceration” on Saturday morning in his very own private tent, as if he were a Saudi sheik. In a preachy, smiley mood, he told the camera how much he wants to thank inmates for such a gracious reception.

What, no interview by John Thompson for next Thursday’s TNT halftime special?

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said Barkley already had been acting like a “model inmate” and is close enough to other inmates to chat them up.

Hopefully Fat Charlie told them not to make the same mistakes he did.

Peter Vecsey covers the NBAfor the New York Post.