It had been a rough nine days for J.R. Smith.
After his Denver Nuggets' Game 1 victory in their first-round Western Conference playoff series against the Utah Jazz -- in which he funneled his considerable gifts into a now-semi-customary talentsplosion directed at the Jazz, like a kid tacking a bottomless coffee can onto an open hydrant on a sweltering day, to notch 20 points and six rebounds in 27 minutes of run -- Smith wandered into the Negative Zone. In Games 2, 3 and 4 -- all Nuggets losses, mind you -- he just couldn't shake the funk, shooting a collective 9-for-30 from the floor (just 3-for-13 from distance) and failing to provide the off-the-bench scoring spark that could give Carmelo Anthony a hand in combating a dogged Jazz outfit led by breakout star Kyrylo Fesenko (and, to a lesser extent, Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer).
Luckily for Nuggets fans -- and, judging by some of the late-night hosannas screaming across my Twitter feed last night, quite a few fanbase-independent (or at least non-Denver-partisan) hoop appreciators -- Smith broke free last night, scoring 17 points on 5-for-9 shooting, including 4-for-5 from three-point land, to help the Nuggets net a 116-101 win to send the series to Salt Lake City for Game 6 on Friday.
His elbow underneath and his temperature rising, Smith surged late, scoring 10 in the fourth quarter to help put the game away. He hit two 3-pointers in the quarter that pushed Denver's lead to six and seven, respectively, a pair of free throws that extended the advantage to nine and a monster two-handed windmill that made it 111-97 and put a big red bow on the contest. The deep touch, the explosive athleticism, the that's-so-annoying-but-I'd-love-him-if-he-was-on-my-team attitude -- it was all there. He was back.
As much fun as it was for fans to see J.R. Smith doing J.R. Smith things again, the fact remains that the Nugs are still down 3-2 in the series as they head back to EnergySolutions Arena. Legitimate questions persist as to whether they can win a title playing their brand of Jekyll-and-Hyde ball against disciplined, well-coached and talented squads like the one they face in Jerry Sloan's Jazz, especially without Nene and with Chris Andersen clearly playing at less than 100 percent. Winning two straight, with the first on the road, against a team keyed by a bona fide killer like Williams ... well, it's a pretty tall order.
But the element of the unknown that Denver in general, and J.R. Smith in particular, brings to the table -- the chance that you could see just about anything on the offensive end of the court when they're on it -- has to strike a little bit of fear in the hearts of the powder-blue believers. Because as NBA FanHouse's Chris Tomasson pointed out, when Smith steps his game up, he feels like his team can't lose, and a confident man with his back against the wall and chaos in his heart can be a very dangerous thing.