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.