With starting shooting guard Iman Shumpert sidelined by a sprained right shoulder, head coach Mike Woodson elected to move reserve J.R. Smith into the New York Knicks' starting lineup for their nationally televised Thursday night matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers. This seemed a bit like a cause for concern; after all, in Smith's nine prior starts this season, he'd averaged 13.7 points per game on just 31.3 percent shooting from the field, with the Knicks going 3-6 in those contests and having been outscored by 84 points in 338 J.R.-as-a-starter minutes. (By comparison, New York has outscored opponents by 13 points in J.R.'s 886 off-the-bench minutes this season.)
But Smith's been better of late, showcasing a bit more burst and bloom in recent weeks than he had throughout his dreadful first two months of the season and beginning to make the kind of offensive contributions that propelled him to the 2012-13 Sixth Man of the Year Award. That quiet renaissance continued Thursday against the hapless Cavs at Madison Square Garden, with Smith looking quicker, more confident and more explosive than he has in quite a while.
Just ask No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett, who followed up what might have been his breakthrough performance by getting summarily roasted by Smith during the first quarter in which the Knicks essentially decided the outcome of the game:
Joke-wise, I'll defer here to the estimable Brian Mahoney of The Associated Press:
J.R. Smith just left Bennett standing so still, the rookie might ask to go to the D-League at the next timeout.
— Brian Mahoney (@briancmahoney) January 31, 2014
On the very next possession, Bennett was left in single coverage at the elbow against Carmelo Anthony, who promptly dusted the rook, got to the cup and scored so easily that by the time Bennett got back to the Cleveland bench, he was terrified of Powerade. It wasn't the kid's night; he finished with four points on 1 for 6 shooting in 22 1/2 minutes.
Smith wasn't done after breezing past Bennett, though; later, he took Cleveland power forward Tristan Thompson for a walk, driving right before stopping on a dime, dribbling back through his legs and dropping the Canadian big man to the deck:
"I wanted to laugh," Smith said after the game, according to Andrew Keh of the New York Times, "but I knew my teammates was going crazy behind me, so I had to make the shot."
Never forget, kids: It only becomes a highlight when you stick the jumper afterward.
With the Knicks cruising to a double-figure victory, Smith finished his troika of Cavalier-terrorizing plays early in the fourth quarter by leaking out after a missed Dion Waiters jumper, pulling in a perfect outlet pass from rookie Tim Hardaway Jr., and taking flight:
It wasn't Smith's final play of the evening, but it provided proper punctuation for a night that saw him score 19 points on 8 for 16 shooting, grab four rebounds, dish two assists and notch a block and a steal without a turnover in 35 minutes of work.
While they're loud, cool, fun exclamation points to the Knicks' 117-86 blowout win over the reeling Cavs, the dunks are particularly noteworthy for what they seem to indicate — that 2 1/2 months after making his season debut following offseason knee surgery and a five-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, Smith's got his wheels and his bounce back, and that, perhaps more importantly, he's got his confidence in his wheels and his bounce back.
When Smith was struggling so mightily earlier this season, he seemed to lack both the lift to consistently stroke long-range jumpers and the ability to beat defenders off the dribble to get to the basket or the free throw line. That stuff seems like it's coming back, and it's showing on the court — over his last 10 games, J.R. is averaging 15.5 points in 32 minutes per game, shooting 46.1 percent from the floor and a scorching 45.8 percent from 3-point range, and getting himself to the foul line more frequently than he had earlier in the season. (Granted, 3.3 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes isn't anything to write home about, especially when you're hitting just under 52 percent of them, but it's better than two per-36.) He had successfully completed three dunks this season before Thursday night, according to Basketball-Reference.com; he had two, and two fairly spectacular ones, on Thursday night alone.
That 10-game cutoff point also coincides with Smith's benching by coach Mike Woodson after the 28-year-old swingman had gotten himself in trouble for untying shoelaces. (Smith was benched again three games later, in a loss to the Charlotte Bobcats, for reasons that remain unclear.)
Whether the uptick in Smith's play can be pegged to getting with the program after being disciplined, feeling physically up to par for the first time since going under the knife, a bit of both, or something else entirely, he certainly appears to be playing more comfortably, confidently and effectively. According to NBA.com's lineup data, between the start of the season and the benching against the Heat, the Knicks had been outscored by 5.7 points per 100 possessions during Smith's time on the floor and had played opponents slightly better than even-up with J.R. on the bench. Over his last 10 games, that trend has reversed — New York is outscoring opponents by 4.4 points per 100 possessions with Smith on the floor, and being outscored by 2.8 points-per-100 when he sits. He's helping, and his teammates are noticing.
"It's good to see J.R. starting to come around," said Anthony, who continued his run of strong play with 29 points on 8 for 17 shooting (including a 3 for 5 mark from 3-point land and 10 for 12 shooting at the free-throw line) and five rebounds in 30 minutes of play, during a post-game chat with TNT's Craig Sager.
It's surely a welcome sight for a Knicks team that needs to rack up wins to get back into the Eastern Conference playoff chase. New York has now won four in a row, and sits a half-game back of the Charlotte Bobcats for the eighth seed in the East.
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