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It's been a rough NBA Finals for J.R. Smith, whose choice of in-arena wheels has generated more positive coverage than his play on the court for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
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He entered Sunday's Game 5 shooting just 29.8 percent from the floor and 25 percent from 3-point land in 33 minutes per game, struggling to consistently make shots — whether the tightly contested looks he tends to favor or the (admittedly rare) open opportunities he's received — against the Golden State Warriors. His defense hasn't been much better, as he nearly cost Cleveland dearly with some ill-advised late fouls in Game 2 and has struggled at times to track Warriors wing threats like Klay Thompson off the ball and mostly either given up points or committed fouls on the ball.
With season-ending injuries to stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving leaving the Cavaliers short-handed, though, and only limited veterans Mike Miller and Shawn Marion or rookie Joe Harris available behind Smith on the bench, head coach David Blatt just didn't seem to have many options on the wing besides hoping that J.R. stopped playing like ... well, "horses---."
Cleveland needs shot-making and scoring to lighten the insane load that LeBron James is carrying, and of the options on hand, the one most likely to get hot and tilt a game — as he did against the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference finals — is J.R.
"He'll be all right," J.R.'s dad, Earl Smith, told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck after Game 4. "He's just got to keep shooting."
He did just that on Sunday night, becoming the 13th player since 1985 to attempt at least 14 3-pointers in a playoff game, and only the second to hoist that many triples in a Finals contest. (The first? Stephen Curry, who went just 2-for-15 in Cleveland's Game 2 win at Oracle last Sunday.) And — for a minute there — it looked like the dam had broken and the lid had finally come off the basket for one of the game's premier streak shooters.
With Warriors head coach Steve Kerr electing to stay with the small-ball starting lineup he deployed in Game 4 — so long, center Andrew Bogut; hello, Finals hero Andre Iguodala — and Golden State racing out to an early 8-2 lead, Blatt felt he had to match up, choosing to yank 7-footer Timofey Mozgov and insert Smith less than five minutes into the first quarter. J.R. hit the ground running, making a nice defensive play to snuff out a Harrison Barnes layup before drilling his first shot, a right corner 3 off a draw-and-kick feed from James.
He also received a flagrant foul-1 for ducking his shoulder and running with purpose through a Draymond Green screen:
Green split his free throws, and nothing much came of it.
"I thought that was the flow of the game," Blatt said. "We've tried and we should be physical, as does the other team."
Smith continued his hard defensive work, blocking a pair of Klay Thompson interior tries midway through the quarter. He also kept knocking down shots, opening up 5-for-8 from the floor — and one of the misses was a beyond-half-court heave at the end of the first quarter — en route to pouring in 14 points in the first half, more than he'd managed in any single Finals game before Sunday.
Finally, LeBron — once again doing his all-consuming, all-conquering thing — had a running buddy putting up points, and Cleveland headed into halftime down just one point. Finally, Smith saw some shots go through the basket, taking some of the weight off his shoulders.
"Yeah, [I felt] a peace of mind," he said after the game. "But that's about it. Just gotta try to make some more shots at home."
After halftime, though, J.R.'s night went south.
Some of Smith's second-half woes stemmed from an increase in defensive attentiveness and activity by the men marking him. Harrison Barnes hugged up on him in the corners. Draymond Green closed out hard on cross-matches, running him off the line in transition. Klay Thompson, Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa all seemed to step up their level of focus and intensity in working to keep him from getting free, helping hold Smith scoreless after halftime.
"I don't know what happened with him," LeBron said. "I mean, we kept going to him. He just missed some shots. He came out aggressive, which we wanted him to do. We kept finding him. He started off well, he just cooled down. It's just a make-or-miss league. He took some great shots. Some of them was in a rhythm, and some of them, after he hit a few, he loves to go to the heat check, and we're all OK with that, and he just missed them."
But beyond mere make-or-miss situations, there was a tactical change that helped put the clamps on Smith post-intermission.
After watching Smith get clean releases off screens for in-rhythm catches and open looks in the first half, Steve Kerr had his wing defenders start switching those off-ball screens, betting that his roster of long, athletic, smart wing defenders would be able to communicate the hand-off in assignments well enough to both keep Smith from popping loose and keep the screener from exploiting a mismatch on the exchange.
You could see the strategy in action just past the midpoint of the third quarter:
Smith runs up court and off an Iman Shumpert screen on the left elbow. As he does so, his primary defender, Klay Thompson, passes him off to Stephen Curry. Smith curls along the baseline toward the right corner and back up above the 3-point arc, where he receives another off-ball screen from James Jones. Again, the Warriors hand Smith off, with Curry giving way to Livingston, who's long enough to show help on a driving LeBron while being able to recover back to Smith should James kick the ball back out. Smith winds up being a bystander rather than a threat.
"We tried to eliminate shots off the screens," Klay Thompson said after the game. "He was getting free and we made adjustments at halftime. If we had to switch out, we did. He’s a guy who can get real hot. We knew if we tried to close his air space and make him put it on the floor instead, it’s better than him coming off in rhythm taking a 3-pointer."
The Warriors did a much better job of dealing with the pindown action than they did in the first half on this possession just past the five-minute mark of the third:
After inbounding the ball, J.R. cuts to the baseline, with Jones stepping up to screen Smith's man, Klay Thompson. Once Smith gets to the baseline, though, he reverses field and starts racing back toward the 3-point line. Thompson immediately points out Smith's path and calls for the switch, sending Livingston to deal with Smith as he receives the pass from LeBron. The wiry, balanced and lengthy Livingston stays in Smith's mug the whole way, contesting his pull-up 3-pointer and helping force a miss.
Later, Livingston and Barbosa handled the off-ball switching assignment, with the Brazilian fighting through traffic in the lane and doing a nice job of ball denial late in the possession to prevent Matthew Dellavedova from using Smith as a release valve:
They'd also team up to keep Smith from running free in the final minute, helping force the Cavs to keep the ball on the congested strong side of the floor and wind up with a corner 3-pointer by the also-struggling Iman Shumpert:
All told, Smith managed just four field-goal attempts — all from 3-point range — in the second half, and missed 'em all, helping contribute to a dismal display that saw Cavaliers not named LeBron or Tristan combine for just six points on 2-for-12 shooting after halftime in the 104-91 defeat.
Smith said after the game that he didn't feel any different in the second half than he did in the first. But he definitely recognized that the Warriors handled him differently.
"For me, it was pretty much the same thing," he said. "They just started closing out more, started switching out on my sets more. So, same mindset, just didn't get any good looks."
Once the Warriors shut down Smith as an option coming off screens, Cleveland had precious few non-LeBron creative options, once again struggling to generate much of consequence when he wasn't either scoring or assisting. That wasn't enough on Sunday, as Golden State poured it on late and put Smith and company on the brink of elimination.
"We lost, but it is what it is," he said. "We get a chance to go back home and get a game at home, and try and come back here and win another. That's all we can do [...] We're in a dogfight. Our back's up against the wall. Only way you're going to make it out is just fight."
And for Smith, that means shooting — early, often, and until the other team renders doing so impossible.
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