Because of the greatness of the leading man, there’s a spot on Cleveland’s roster that’s often easy to take for granted. That is, of course, until you need him.
That roster spot belongs to the backup 3. You know, the guy behind LeBron James.
During last year’s postseason run – as injuries continued to mount – the Wine and Gold looked to Mike Miller and Shawn Marion to pick up some of the slack. And while both players were well-established NBA veterans and, in Marion’s case, a potential Hall of Famer, neither provided Cleveland much relief in the later rounds of the Playoffs. Miller played in nine postseason games, but attempted just five shots in the tournament. Marion played in just six contests – and didn’t see a single minute of action in the 2015 Finals.
So this offseason, the Wine and Gold picked up a player who’s been nothing short of a massive upgrade at the position – 15-year vet Richard Jefferson.
In the regular season, Jefferson was rock-solid in relief of James – playing in 74 games, starting five, and averaging 5.5 points on 46 percent shooting. The 13th overall pick of the 2001 Draft notched double-figures on 15 occasions, led the team in steals nine times, blocks four times and once in scoring – a 20-point effort in Miami.
In 15 seasons, Jefferson’s reached the Playoffs in 11 of them – including his first six in New Jersey and just last year with the Mavericks.
This spring, R.J. is making his third career trip to the Eastern Conference Finals – and he can say that he’s played a major part in helping his squad reach that point.
Through Cleveland’s first eight games, he’s been the model of efficiency – shooting 56 percent from the floor and 53 percent from beyond the arc. In the Second Round matchup with Atlanta, Jefferson was nearly perfect – shooting 75 percent (9-of-12) from the field, 83 percent (5-of-6) from long-distance.
As the Cavaliers gear up for their Eastern Conference Finals battle with the Raptors, Cavs.com sat down with Jefferson to talk about his first postseason run with the Wine and Gold …
You’ve been to the Playoffs with five different teams over your career. What’s unique about this one?
Richard Jefferson: I would say our balance.
I’m not saying we’re the best team in this league, but I don’t feel like we have a weakness. We have post-up talent, we have interior talent, we have shooting and we have depth. We give teams matchup problems, when you look at what Kevin and Channing bring to the table. We really don’t have a weakness, per se, that you can exploit.
This year, you’ve been LeBron’s backup at the 3, but the coaches have had you both on the floor quite a bit throughout the Playoffs. How effective has that been?
Jefferson: Well, our coaches put LeBron in with the second unit – take him out early at times in that first quarter and let him play with the second unit.
So there’s some different things that we can run, especially with Channing’s ability to spread the floor. It allows (LeBron) to post up. And it makes it tough because it takes their 5 away from the basket. So, if (LeBron)’s posting up or driving, if you go to help, he’s kicking it to maybe our best spot-up shooter.
So there’s a lot advantages that come with that lineup.
You went to the Conference Finals in your first two seasons out of Arizona. What’s that like for a young player?
Jefferson: I thought that’s the way it was! And what’s crazy is that it’s been 13 years since I’ve gone to the Conference Finals.
I’ve been on tons of playoff teams, I’ve been to the Second Round multiple times. But I know how rare it is. I just remember my fifth or sixth year in New Jersey when I could see the team just wasn’t really right; they just had a different feel about them.
I just remember wishing that I was with another contending team. And so, trust me, I’m happy to be here.
I was living in New York, but it was a different time then.
During my rookie year, 9/11 happened, and it was really just a somber time. I remember the Yankees lost in the World Series and then all of sudden the Knicks are terrible and the Nets are great.
It was just a weird time with so much going on in the Tri-State area. People were like: ‘The Nets are good?!’
Yeah, we were. And yeah, we were fun to watch. So that time was unique and that era was a lot of fun.
How do you explain being in such a great rhythm during the current Playoffs?
Jefferson: Well, I just think as an old man, the 82 games is just not for me anymore. (laughs)
I see the benefit where you need me to step in for a game if someone’s out. But over the long haul, that’s what I was brought here for. I was brought here to add depth and provide some versatility and space the floor.
And even though I’m 35 and I’ve played a thousand games, I was available to play all 82. There was no ‘Richard, we’re going to rest you on this day.’
But now that we’re in the Playoffs and we’re playing every other day. We’ve had eight days off – twice! So as far my body and how I feel, my body feels amazing. This is as good as I’ve felt all year. And a lot of guys on this team are in the same space.
What did you bring this team that it didn’t have last year – especially at this time of year?
Jefferson: I knew how much I had in the tank and I knew that I could contribute.
So when I looked at this situation, I can’t say exponentially, but I felt like I could make this a better team. I was like: ‘If I can get here and I can stay healthy throughout the year, I make this a better team.’
As a long-time veteran, what can you say about the job Tyronn Lue has done?
Jefferson: He’s a guy that’s been so respected for so long in this league.
I played together with him in Milwaukee. Guys around this league, they all like T-Lue. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that’s ever played with him or had interaction with him that doesn’t love him or think he’s hilarious or doesn’t like being around him.
He works extremely hard, he knows his stuff, he takes his time and everything is well thought out.
Not to take anything from Coach Blatt, but T-Lue and his approaches aren’t really that much different. I think what T-Lue has gotten guys to do is play a little bit faster, increase the pace – which has increased how productive we are. And I think everybody benefits from that.
Where are you at in this stage of your career?
Jefferson: I’m an old man on my way out, but we went to the Playoffs my first six years and it was just like: ‘This is what we’re built for.’
Not every body’s built for 82 games. I’ve played 79 or more I think seven or eight times in my career. This year, I got some DNP’s, but I was ready to go. That doesn’t mean you’re going to be healthy for all 82; you’re never healthy for all 82. But my thinking is: ‘If I’m healthy enough to go out there and not do damage to the team, I’m gonna go play.’
Not everyone has that mindset. You see guys 26 years old taking time off for rest. That blows my mind, but it actually does make sense. Unless you have an active streak like Tristan, you should give your guys their rest. They started doing that for 30- and 35-year-old guys and saw how it prolonged guys’ careers.
I take pride – and I have never taken it for granted – how blessed and fortune I am to be healthy and to have been good teams and in good situations over the course of my career.