All things considered, it was about as good a scenario as New York Knicks fans could have hoped for — down just one point to the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder on a night where they were playing without leading scorer Carmelo Anthony, with just under eight seconds left on the clock, possession of the ball and a chance to win it. To a large extent, J.R. Smith was the reason the Knicks were even in position to win — with Anthony missing his second straight game with a right knee injury, Smith had become the focal point of the New York offense and (for the most part) performed brilliantly, scoring a game-high 36 points, including 31 in the second and third quarters to keep pace with OKC's one-two punch of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
All the Knicks needed was one more basket to steal what would have been, in context, their most impressive win in months. Instead, they got this:
Coming out of the timeout, Knicks coach Mike Woodson handed Smith the keys. The problem, as both coach and player acknowledged after the final shot went awry and the Thunder walked out of Madison Square Garden with a 95-94 win, was that Smith didn't put them in the ignition and drive. From ESPN New York's Ian Bagley:
[...] Smith, as brilliant as he was all night, missed his final two shots — the second of which was a turnaround 17-footer with two seconds to play and the Knicks down one.
Just like many Knicks fans watching the game on TV, Mike Woodson was left scratching his head when Smith settled for a jump shot instead of attacking the rim.
Said Woodson: "He could have ripped through it and went to the rim. But he didn’t and settled for the jump shot."
Smith said Woodson did not instruct him to drive on the final play. But he beat himself up for not taking it to the basket.
"The turnaround jumper is a tough shot in that situation. I really should have taken a page out of LeBron’s book yesterday and just tried to go to the basket," Smith said. "But my jumper was pretty much good all night."
It's true that the final possessions of the Knicks' Thursday night loss and the Miami Heat's Wednesday night win were pretty much polar opposites. Whereas Smith burned clock to shake, rattle and fire a contested midrange jumper over Westbrook from the left wing, LeBron James squared up high, drove on Orlando Magic defender DeQuan Jones and got directly to the rim; whereas Smith's jumper drew iron, James' layup found purchase; whereas the Knicks came up just short in a game they really didn't have much business winning (which, as my ace Seth Rosenthal wrote at Knicks blog Posting and Toasting, makes it all the more heartbreaking for Knicks fans), the Heat came out just ahead in a game that they very well could have lost.
OK, so, now we've established that J.R. Smith isn't LeBron James and doesn't make decisions as well as the three-time MVP, where do we go from here?
For many on Friday morning, the direction seems to be questioning Woodson. The coach's much-discussed love of isolation clearouts for Joe Johnson with the Atlanta Hawks seemed to wane earlier this season, as the Knicks became a ball-movement-friendly squad that beat opponents by sharing the rock, creating open 3-point looks and opportunities to attack closeouts to get to the basket; but as the season has progressed, the predilection toward iso plays, particularly on the left-hand side of the floor, has returned, resulting in what we saw on Thursday night — one-on-one, with the clock winding down, all or nothing possessions. Hero ball over team ball.
It's worked in the past — Smith won two games for the Anthony-less Knicks in similar fashion earlier this season — but it's not exactly the most reliable thing in the world, especially when your "hero" is a 40 percent shooter. (Although, for what it's worth, J.R.'s actually just under 50 percent from the area where he shot the ball, according to NBA.com's shot charts. Still, though.)
Going through J.R. not only on the final possession, but on the final two possessions, looks especially bad in hindsight because while Smith was getting the chance to win it or lose it on his own, the Knicks' $100 million reserve, Amar'e Stoudemire, was reduced to watching. It hadn't exactly been a banner night for Stoudemire — 16 points and eight rebounds in 29 minutes is nice, but he was held to just 5 for 16 shooting and was routinely rejected by Thunder forward Serge Ibaka — but he was also the last Knick to score, drawing a fifth foul on Ibaka and hitting two free throws to give the Knicks a 94-93 lead with 1:50 remaining. And yet, down the stretch, he didn't get a look; as a result, as Begley notes, "Woodson left himself open to criticism."
"It was a well-drawn play," Stoudemire said. "We got what we wanted, but we just missed the shot."
And as a result, fans and media members will question whether or not what the Knicks wanted was the right thing to begin with ... which seems only appropriate, given that this whole thing started with J.R. Smith's decision-making, generally very fertile ground for wondering.
If the clip above isn't working for you, please feel free to check out the final play elsewhere, thanks to NBAshowtimeHD.