With leading scorer Carmelo Anthony out with a hyperextended left knee and starting point guard Raymond Felton sidelined by a fractured right pinkie that could require surgery and a four-to-six-week shelving — two injuries suffered during a 100-94 Christmas Day loss to the Los Angeles Lakers — the New York Knicks needed more scoring and playmaking from ultra-talented but often erratic sixth man J.R. Smith when they visited the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night. While it wasn't always pretty — five missed shots in 6 1/2 minutes of first-quarter work, 16 clanks overall, four turnovers mitigating his five assists — with the game on the line, it was effective enough to escape:
That, frankly, is just unfair to P.J. Tucker.
The Suns forward and defensive ace stayed with Smith through every move, juke and feint on the Knicks guard's top-of-the-key 18-footer, yet still had to watch it fall through to tie the game at 97 with 10.6 seconds to go. Then, after Tyson Chandler forced Phoenix point guard Sebastian Telfair to step out of bounds with one second remaining to give the Knicks one chance to win it in regulation, Tucker nimbly worked around Chandler's screen, stayed with Smith on his catch of Jason Kidd's inbounds bounce pass and was directly in J.R.'s mug, elevated and arm outstretched, as Smith let go a fallaway 21-footer from the left corner. Again, all P.J. could do was watch — J.R. had won this particular abbreviated first-names battle and the shorthanded Knicks had come away with a 99-97 road win.
Wednesday's baseline buzzer-beater came just three weeks after Smith canned a similarly difficult fadeaway J to beat the Charlotte Bobcats. He's just the fourth NBA player in the last 10 years to hit multiple game-winning buzzer-beaters in the same month, according to HOOPSWORLD's Tommy Beer, joining Allen Iverson, Gilbert Arenas and Kobe Bryant ... which, temperamentally, is about as perfect a list for J.R. to join as any.
With the Knicks' two primary offensive initiators unavailable, responsibility for getting New York going fell to Smith and Jason Kidd, both of whom ate up a much larger share of the offense — according to Hoopdata, Kidd used 28.5 percent of Knick possessions on Wednesday, more than double his season average, while nearly 45 percent of New York's offensive plays went through Smith, including those pivotal final two. All told, Smith and Kidd combined for 50 points, 13 assists, 12 rebounds and some much-needed control for a team on the second night of a back-to-back without not only their top two scorers, but also injured big man Rasheed Wallace and the still-not-ready-to-return duo of Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert.
After Telfair's costly turnover, Knicks coach Mike Woodson called a timeout to draw up a potential game-wnning play. (Weirdly, Smith hung onto the ball during the timeout, staring at it and spinning it.) Woodson and Kidd said after the game that the two-way option could have resulted in a lob to Chandler at the rim, but J.R. was pretty certain that it was coming his way, according to Bob Baum of The Associated Press:
"It was premeditated," Smith said. "I was walking around the court going, 'You are going to make it, you are going to make it.' I was trying to get my form ready before I even thought about taking it. I was trying to go through my mechanics in my head, get my shoulders square to the basket and just let it fly."
After Smith finished with 27 points — 14 of which, including the game-tying and game-winning buckets, came in the second half — you'd certainly understand it if Phoenix fans found themselves wondering whether he should've even been allowed to head out of the locker room for the third quarter, given the flagrant foul he committed on Suns point guard Goran Dragic with the Knicks up 11 and just 22 seconds remaining before halftime:
As the Phoenix point guard raced downcourt in transition, Smith ran back on defense to try to contest his attempt. He was too late, as Dragic elevated for the layup before Smith could make a play on the ball; instead, Smith bumped Dragic's back with his left shoulder as he passed by, disrupting Dragic in mid-air and sending him crashing to the court in a dangerous fall. Dragic was slow to get up, and the referees called the play a flagrant foul — but only a flagrant-one, which conferred a personal foul on J.R. and a team foul on the Knicks, and awarded Dragic two shots and gave Phoenix the ball afterward, rather than a flagrant-two, which would have resulted in Smith's ejection.
An argument could certainly be made that the latter penalty was warranted, as Brett Pollakoff writes at ProBasketballTalk:
The only thing that could have come of Smith making contact with an airborne Dragic was exactly what ended up happening — an injury. That’s the type of play that deserves to be ruled a flagrant-two, but instead, the officials decided it was harmless enough to allow him to remain in the game.
Tell that to Dragic, who missed the second half with a combination wrist/back/hip injury.
Dragic will be re-evaluated Thursday, according to Bob Young of the Arizona Republic.
While it's fun to praise Smith's tough shot-making, glorious lunacy and timely performance, reasonable adults also have to acknowledge that a play like that on a dude in the air is really, really dangerous, and that J.R. might have gotten off light with the flagrant-one. Like Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade, Smith could face discipline from the league office upon further review of his run-in with Dragic; if he gets dinged a game, it'll be difficult to argue that he didn't deserve it. (It'll also leave the Knicks really short on scoring.)
Suns forward Jared Dudley stepped up with Phoenix's leading scorer sidelined, pouring in 19 of his career-high 36 points in the second half. But thanks to Smith's final-minute heroics, it wasn't enough, as Phoenix dropped its third straight to fall to 11-18, four games out of playoff contention in the Western Conference.