Smith works through frustration, eyes rebound in Game 3

Nuggets coach, teammates come to defense of reserve shooting guard

George Karl is an old-school coach who embraces the values of team-oriented basketball.

J.R. Smith is a new-school player whose youthful mistakes can sometimes leave Karl shaking his head.

Yet the 59-year-old coach and his 25-year-old shooting guard have more in common than it might seem.

Both passionately want to succeed.

After Smith voiced his frustration following back-to-back playoff losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder, he and Karl sat down for an honest face-to-face meeting that focused on getting ready for Game 3 Saturday night at the Pepsi Center (8 p.m., Altitude/ESPN).

“Everybody’s on the same page, everybody’s ready to go,” Smith said after practice Friday.

“He’s a great coach. He’s had the teams over the years to prove that. He’s got 1,000 wins. He’s a smart guy. He knows his stuff.”

Searching for an effective combination after the Nuggets fell behind by 26 points in Game 2, Karl shortened his bench. Smith did not play in the second half after going 1-for-6 from the field and committing two turnovers in a 6:42 span of the second quarter.

After a team meeting Thursday, Smith let his frustration get the best of him, saying the “team had no pulse” and that he wasn’t sure about his future in Denver.

“It’s definitely frustration,” Smith said Friday. “(Down) 2-0 and then not playing well really sets me off because I want to do whatever I can to help this team win – not so much stat-wise, but anything – take a charge, dive for a loose ball, anything to make sure we get a ‘W’.

Asked how much playing time he expected to get Saturday, Smith said: “I’m anticipating getting a ‘W.’ That’s my main focus. Whether I play or not, winning is the most important thing.”

Karl and Smith have had their differences over the past five years, but the coach repeatedly has praised Smith for his hard work, attention to detail and team-first attitude this season. He came to his defense again Friday.

“The magnifying of what happened is incredible,” Karl said. “Whatever J.R.’s words were that you all want to use, you just kind of blew it out of proportion. I don’t want J.R. to be happy about not playing. I want J.R to be angry. I want them all to be angry. But I also want them to be teammates. I think J.R., more than ever, has shown that he wants to be that guy.”

“Unfortunately you want to magnify the dysfunctional and the crazy. I think it really is incorrect and wrong because it’s not the truth of what really happened. And I think it’s a disservice to J.R. and his reputation. I don’t think he deserves that criticism at this moment. Maybe in the past he deserved it more, but not yesterday.”

Smith, along with high-energy forward Chris Andersen, are critical to the Nuggets’ success as they try to protect the home court. Both can change the momentum of a game and, perhaps, a series by providing scoring, rebounding and defense.

“They have a great bench, we have a great bench,” Smith said. “I think that’s the key in the series. Guys on the bench bring energy and excitement. For some reason we couldn’t do that the first two games, but we’re home now, so hopefully we get it started.”

The Thunder beat the Nuggets at the Pepsi Center on April 5 but otherwise hasn’t had much success in Denver, losing seven of the past eight visits.

Not that the Nuggets are taking anything for granted, particularly when it comes to historical statistics.

“You all get caught up in numbers and history and the way series have gone in the past,” Nuggets captain Kenyon Martin told a large group of reporters Friday. “That's all you guys do. You all look at numbers. We play basketball, so all we got to do is go out and get Game 3. That’s all we’re concerned about.”

Like Karl, Martin also came to Smith’s defense, saying his teammate would be ready to bounce back Saturday night.

“As a team, we’re fine – him included,” Martin said. “I’m the captain of this team, and I’m telling you we’re all right. So if you want to dig some dirt, go somewhere else and do it.”

The Nuggets have their own digging to do, and the shovels will be out in Game 3.

“It was a good vibe at practice,” said shooting guard Arron Afflalo, who is set to make his series debut. “We’re ready to win.”

Aaron Lopez
Aaron J. Lopez is the primary writer for, providing behind-the-scenes content, including feature stories and video for the site. Before joining the Nuggets in 2009, he spent 15 years covering Colorado sports for the Rocky Mountain News and the Associated Press, making him one of the longest-tenured sports writers in Denver. Aaron's full bio...