Cleveland Cavaliers shooting guard J.R. Smith left the team’s Monday night meeting with the conference rival Toronto Raptors after suffering a scary left knee injury that left the veteran sharpshooter in evident agony on the court at the Air Canada Centre.
The injury took place with just under two minutes remaining in the first quarter, with the Cavs holding a three-point edge on the team they beat in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals:
Smith drove around Raptors defender DeMar DeRozan into the paint, then raised up to loft a floater over the outstretched arms of center Jonas Valanciunas. The ball softly splashed through the net for two points, but as it was doing so, Smith was landing awkwardly on the baseline, jamming his left foot into the ground in a halting step that stopped his momentum and immediately sent him to his knees on the court.
He pulled himself to his feet and limped over half-court, as teammate Iman Shumpert took a foul to force a stoppage in play that would allow the Cavs’ trainers to take a look at the ailing Smith. He laid on the court for a few moments, trainers and teammates around him, appearing to be in excruciating pain and even seeming briefly to be near tears. Eventually, he made his way to the Cavaliers bench before limping back to the locker room, biting on a towel as he exited.
Soon after, Cleveland made it official: Smith’s night was over.
Unfortunate news for the #Cavs: J.R. Smith suffered left knee injury. Will NOT return tonight.
— Allie Clifton (@FSOAllieOop) December 6, 2016
ESPN.com’s Dave McMenamin later reported that initial X-rays on Smith’s knee were negative.
Smith has reportedly been dealing with pain in his left knee for at least a week now, according to Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:
“It’s something he’s been trying to play with,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said last week, speaking of Smith’s knee. “Not for sure how serious it is but it’s something that’s been nagging him for a little while. … It’s something we’ve got to look at and be cautious with but for now he’s fine.”
Despite the pain, though, Smith told Vardon he didn’t want to get a magnetic resonance imaging examination. After Monday’s injury, according to McMenamin, “there is a likelihood that he will visit a medical professional to get ‘a deeper look’ at his knee.”
The injury comes with Smith mired in a dismal shooting slump. The 31-year-old swingman entered Monday having made only seven of his last 40 shots in the Cavs’ previous five games, averaging just 4.2 points in 30.1 minutes per night. He’d made one of his two shots before exiting, scoring two points with one steal in 10 minutes of playing time.
Current misfiring and occasional flights of fancy aside, though, Smith has become a major part of the Cleveland Cavaliers over the past two-plus seasons, going from an afterthought comedy act by the end of his tenure in New York to one of LeBron James’ most trusted lieutenants and one of the Cavs’ most important players on both ends of the floor. His presence gives Cleveland a confident and accurate 3-point shooter who can move the ball and handle multiple defensive assignments on the perimeter. His absence forces less well-known quantities into larger roles in the Cavaliers’ rotation, introducing uncertainty into a Cleveland side that, when not on “honeymoon,” has been about as sure a thing as the East has had to offer since LeBron returned to Northeast Ohio.
On Monday night, Lue tapped little-used DeAndre Liggins to step in for Smith. The well-traveled wing — a second-round pick out of Kentucky in 2011 who has played for the Orlando Magic, Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat, as well as pro teams in Russia, Germany and the D-League — acquitted himself well, chipping in five points, five rebounds and an assist in 21 minutes to help the Cavs earn a 116-112 win over the Raptors. If Smith is forced to miss some time, Shumpert — who had two points and one assist in 20 1/2 minutes of spin on Monday — could also see increased opportunities at the two-guard spot.
Neither player brings nearly Smith’s level of offensive explosiveness and shot-making, though. If he’s put on the shelf, LeBron, Lue and company might have some tinkering to do to cushion the blow and keep the Cavs’ attack humming.
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