There were plenty of reasons why the Cleveland Cavaliers won Game 1 of their Eastern Conference finals series against the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday night, from LeBron James controlling the action to the tune of 31 points, eight rebounds, six assists and one emphatic game-sealing drive-and-dunk to the Hawks' long-range struggles (just 4-for-23 from 3-point land) and All-Star Atlanta forward Paul Millsap's tough night (13 points on 3-for-11 shooting).
But for all intents and purposes, in the way we tend to remember these things, Cleveland won The J.R. Smith Game — the impossible to forecast but not altogether shocking night where the undeniably talented but roundly unpredictable swingman catches fire and reduces the opposition to ash with the flaming sword of his jumper.
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Smith scored a career playoff high 28 points on Wednesday, outscoring the Hawks bench by himself. He drilled 10 of his 16 shots, including eight of his 12 3-point tries, a Cleveland franchise playoff record for made triples. He scored 17 points in a five-minute span stretching from the end of the third quarter through the beginning of the fourth, helping turn a one-possession game into an 18-point blowout, raining down fire from long range off the dribble over some very tight, very committed Hawks defense.
"He didn't get away," Hawks point guard Jeff Teague said after the game "somewhat defiantly," according to ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz. "He just made some tough 3s. He's a good player. He made shots with people draped all over him, hands in his face."
“He hits a lot of tough shots," Atlanta reserve Kent Bazemore said after the game, according to CBSSports.com's Zach Harper. "Myself and Kyle [Korver] had the bulk of his points but they're all tightly contested. A guy hits shots like that, he beats you, and you pat him on the back and I'll see you Game 2. If he continues to do it, you've got to play the percentages on tightly contested step-back 3-pointers. Not a shot a lot of teams take.”
Here's the thing, though: That is a shot J.R. takes. In fact, it's one he prefers taking.
J.R. Smith: "I'd rather take a contested shot than an open shot any day ... It's kind of boring when you take open shots"
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) May 21, 2015
First thing's first: I didn't believe we'd get a more J.R. Smith-y quote this year than, "When in doubt, shoot the ball." And yet, here we are. What an amazing upset!
Secondly — and you're not going to believe this — the numbers actually support J.R.'s preference for tightly covered long bombs, during this postseason, at least:
J.R. Smith: shooting 48 percent on contested jump shots this postseason compared with 40 percent on open jump shots https://t.co/ABzWo5Ce0q
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 21, 2015
The numbers seemed to run a bit more according-to-expectations during the regular season, for what it's worth. NBA.com's SportVU shot-tracking data has Smith at 81-for-229, 35.4 percent, on shots more than 10 feet away from the basket in which a defender's within four feet of him ("tight" coverage) and 174-for-412, 42.2 percent, on 10-plus-footers in which he's got four or more feet of space from his nearest defender ("open" coverage).
Smith's been a good-to-great catch-and-shoot 3-point marksman for years now, but the surest sign that he was in the zone on Wednesday was just how accurate he was when pulling up off the bounce, after doing the sort of cradle-rocking back-and-forth dribbling that resulted in a lot of ugly shooting percentages during his time with the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks. According to the SportVU box score, Smith went 6-for-9 from the field on possessions in which he took two or fewer dribbles, and a surprisingly strong 4-for-7 (3-for-5 from deep) when taking three or more.
But all this talk of SportVU and optical tracking of defender distance and dribble frequency gets us too far away from the point: It is more fun to see dudes make jumpers with defenders all over them.
It does make you think a guy's a better shooter when he can drill shot after shot with hands in his face than when he hits open, in-rhythm looks created by pristine ball and player movement. It might not be the most fundamentally sound and Naismith-pleasing way of generating offense, and the tendency of individual players to veer away from their teammates in favor of calling their own number and trying to bury the opponent beneath their one-man-army buckets has been academically proven to be less effective than the sort of from-each-according-to-his-ability baskets that Mike Budenholzer's Hawks and their progenitors in San Antonio tend to create ... but it's way more dope when those shots go down. In terms of sheer entertainment value, it's not even close!
And it's not just us fans that feel that way — it's Smith's teammates, too. From Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick:
"That's my 9-1-1," [Iman] Shumpert said. "If he hits a late-shot-clock shot, and then he creates another one, and then you give him that wide open one, I'm pretty much done trying to run all the rest of those plays. I kind of want to see how many he's gonna make. 'Cause he's one of those guys, when the rim gets big for him, you can see he'll just pour it in."
Of course you want to see how many he's going to make, Shump. We all do, even though we ought to know better, just like we all (or, OK, many of us) want to eat and drink and otherwise consume the things that are worst for us instead of saying our prayers, taking our vitamins and eating our vegetables. Perpetual clean livin' just ain't as fun as getting dirty once in a while.
I like the way Grantland's Jason Concepcion put it back in February:
No kid stands in his or her driveway counting down the imaginary seconds of the big game just to then pass the ball. The hero ball shot, inefficient though it may be, speaks to the innate spirit of human ambition. It takes very little imagination to live by the percentages, and quite a bit of imagination to think you can beat them. To dare is risky. Which is why it’s entertaining. If I have to choose between a one-man show or the safest way to win, give me the show.
J.R. Smith will always give you the show. Sometimes it's a total flop, dead on arrival, begging to be Sandman-swept off the stage and shuttered after one night. Other times, like in Game 1, it's an absolute runaway hit, a can't-take-my-eyes-off-of-you sensation for which you'll fork over your hard-earned dollars again and again. One man's trash can be another man's smash.
Whichever way the wind blows on that particular night, there's something relentlessly watchable about the approach. It's compelling in a way that frame-by-frame breakdowns of pindowns and cross-screens and the loop just can't match. So you go ahead and keep letting 'em fly, J.R. The more suffocating the coverage, the better. (And, if you wind up going 4-for-12 from deep instead of 8-for-12, the better for the Hawks, too.)
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