.... but Cleveland will need his offense if it wants to take Game 2
POSTED: Jun 5, 2016 10:36 AM ET
Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith, who plays for the ball against Warriors center Andrew Bogut, has committed to playing strong defense, but needs to find his offensive game.
OAKLAND, Calif. — Anyone who thinks J.R. Smith is one of those NBA players whose idea of defense is taking the ball out of the net after his opponent scores hasn't been paying attention.
That might have been Smith's reputation earlier in his career. But that's not how he has approached his craft for at least several ... uh, months? Weeks?
"I used to be a guy who, my pride in my work was pretty much on how I shot the ball," the Cleveland Cavaliers' shooting guard said. "I try not to be that person anymore. Not let, whether I make a shot or miss a shot, define what I can do on a court. I try to start energy and then bring everything else on the defensive side and let my defense turn into transition offense."
Smith, 30, is wrapping up his 12th NBA season, so this most definitely falls into the old dog/new trick category. The obvious question, then, was: Why now?
"My daughter, actually," Smith said, referring to 7-year-old Demi Smith, around whose little finger pop apparently is wrapped.
"I was having a conversation with my daughter earlier this year about her sacrificing her toys, because she wants new toys," Smith said. "I was like, 'Baby, if you want more toys, you're going to have to sacrifice and give these other toys away to people who can't afford them or maybe are less fortunate.' She was like, 'Well, daddy, what are you going to sacrifice?'
"I sat there and honestly thought about it. And one thing that I can control is my defense. How I come in and impact the game. I talked to her about it, and even though she doesn't understand exactly from a basketball term, she understands..."
So yes, 12 years in, it was a conversation with his child about toys that persuaded a guy who already has been paid upwards of $40 million in his career to get serious about something that represents one half of how he logs his time.
OK, so. Smith's defense has been a welcome new facet to his game and has come in handy for the Cavaliers in this postseason, most notably against Atlanta's Kyle Korver in the Eastern Conference semifinals. He was more attentive at that end, too, in the first round against the likes of Detroit's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and in the East finals when matched with Toronto's DeMar DeRozan.
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And some credit belongs to Smith as well for the 4-of-12 shooting performance, including just 1-of-5 from the 3-point line, that Golden State's Klay Thompson sputtered through in Game 1 of The Finals Thursday at Oracle Arena. Holding that guy, nearly as dangerous as sidekick Steph Curry in the Warriors' backcourt, to just nine points is generally a building block of victory, though it didn't quite work that way with Golden State taking the championship series opener, 104-89.
Trouble was, Smith himself scored only three points. And, worse, took only three shots. In 36 minutes.
This wasn't a case, either, of Cleveland willingly sacrificing Smith's offense so he could devote all his energy to shadowing and pestering Thompson. The Cavs can't afford to give up Smith's deep shooting game because of the way it opens the floor for other parts of their attack. Nor can they go without his streaky, no-no-yes ability to launch and make bail-out shots that beat the 24-second clock or otherwise break the backs of the other team's solid defensive stands.
Cleveland needs Smith's offense. And frankly, he's not a good enough defender to be on the floor for 36 minutes if he's not squeezing off more than three field-goal attempts. Quadrupling that would be more in line with his history and his value.
So as the Cavaliers regrouped and licked wounds in the 72 hours between Games 1 and 2, figuring out how to get Smith more involved in the offense was one of their bullet points.
"He's a huge part of our success," LeBron James said, "and we've got to do a better job of trying to get him some looks early on and just to keep him engaged throughout the whole game. Three shot attempts is not enough for him. He had a big fall to start the game that really bothered him. But we've still got to keep him involved where he doesn't feel like he's just chasing around Steph and chasing around Klay all game."
Said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue: "The ball wasn't finding him, I don't think. But also if we don't play fast and get the ball up the floor and play with pace, J.R. suffers the most from that. This team was switching out on pin-downs and switching 1-through-5 when they go with that small lineup. It makes it tough for J.R. to get shots."
A theme for Cleveland since before the final horn of Game 1 has been the pace with which it has to play. A year ago, the Cavaliers tried to grind down Golden State in a halfcourt game; rim protector Timofey Mozgov started at center and going big and slow was James' best bet, having to shoulder so much with both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love hurt and unavailable. It was a slog, but they did push the 2015 Finals to six games.
This postseason, by design, the Cavs have played fast, often relying on transition drives to the basket by James or Irving, followed by kick-outs to Smith, Love, Irving, Channing Frye or Matthew Dellavedova for barely contested threes.
Through the first three rounds, Smith had made 50 3-pointers, third most in these playoffs. He had shot 50-of-109 (.459) from behind the arc, compared to 7-of-17 (.412) inside it. He had averaged 12 points and about nine shots in a little more than 33 minutes.
"He's been on fire these whole playoffs, so we want to take away his 3-point shot as much as possible," Thompson said. "I think we did a great job [in Game 1] just playing with great length and not letting him get easy looks. He's going to make some -- he's a very hot, streaky player, so he's going to make some tough threes. But as long as he's not getting those step-in easy looks, we can live with some of his makes."
Some, as in more than the one he got Thursday.
Smith's undisciplined and playful side has gotten him sideways with some coaches and team executives in a career that has taken him from Denver (five seasons) to New York (two) to Cleveland (two). Teammates, though, generally seem to enjoy his wayward ways -- James considers him a "little brother" and Smith's hover board entrances and exits at Quicken Loans Arena last June time-stamped that Finals in terms of the culture -- and at least one is quite proud of Smith, who arrived in the NBA as the 18th overall pick in 2004, straight out of St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J.
"I've told him I'm proud of his path of growth so far," said Cavs reserve Dahntay Jones, 35, a fellow native of New Jersey. "He's come out of high school, he's basically learning this whole game on the fly. People don't understand, when you don't go to college, you don't get the chance to learn the game of basketball like others. People don't sit down and teach you. You just wander aimlessly through the league and you don't learn how to play, rather than just playing on your skill set. But he's been through some unique experiences where he's getting better and better.
"He's defending at a high level. He's spending a lot of time with the game and film in preparation, and taking care of his body. Lifting. ... He looks at the game in its completeness. It's like the wisdom of the man -- you don't understand until you spend some time in this world."
Now Smith needs to spend time shaking free of Thompson or Curry and gunning (at least a little) Cleveland back into this series.
"I'm going to stick to the game plan," Smith said Friday. "I'm not going to sit there and dribble around and take wild shots with two people on me just to get a shot off. If the shot's there, I'm going to take it. If it's not, I'm going to move the ball and try to help somebody else get a better shot."
If things work out for him and the Cavs, if Smith's sacrifices pay off with a ring, how else does he plan to reward himself, per his conversation with little Demi?
"The toy that I want is an F12 Ferrari," Smith said. "I can get it but I'm using it as my carrot."
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