J.R. Smith is a coach's nightmare.
He's far more water faucet than microwave, capable of following scalding-hot performances with ice-cold nights. He shoots the ball with no conscience no matter if he's on or off that particular game. He has the physical attributes to change the outcome of a game defensively but an inconsistent focus that affords his man unimpeded paths to the basket.
Yet at the same time he's what coaches dream of having available on their bench.
He's one of the few players in the league with in-the-gym range and one of the only ones who can layer his offensive game with relentless drives to the basket.
Smith has his fingerprints all over the Knicks' current six-game winning streak—the longest such stretch since the Chicago Bulls snapped the Miami Heat's 27-game surge on March 27. It's a good thing that he does, too, because he's probably putting himself in line for an identification check any day now.
Smith has poured in 25.6 points per game in New York's last five games.
If he had stretched that out over the entire course of the season, he'd be the league's sixth-best scorer. As it stands, his 17.4 PPG still have him slotted 25th in the NBA—he's the only player in the top 25 doing his damage from off the bench.
But while he's never had trouble scoring before, this recent explosion was unlike anything he'd shown in his nine-year career. In fact, he's doing something that the entire league hasn't seen in nearly 25 years:
Knicks' @therealjrsmith, Elias says, first player w/four 30-point games off bench in same month since Ricky Pierce had four in November 1990— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) March 28, 2013
What's perhaps most amazing about his offensive prowess of late is the fact that he's doing it without having one of his damaging weapons in his arsenal. During his last five games he's converted just 31.8 percent of his attempts from downtown (via NBA.com), more than a four-point dip from his season average of 34.9 percent and nearly a six-point drop from his career average of 36.6 percent.
Frankly, Knicks coach Mike Woodson and Smith's teammates could care less about his perimeter struggles.
In fact they're probably glad that he's experiencing them.
With his three-point shot removed from the equation, Smith has taken his offensive game inside. He's not undergoing one of those midcareer post renaissances like Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James but rather maximizing the effectiveness of his nifty ball-handling and strength to finish drives at the basket.
When his drives don't land him on the highlight reel they often put him in a far more desirable place—the free-throw line. Smith has averaged 7.6 free-throw attempts over his last five games, nearly three higher than his career average of 4.7 per game.
Considering he's connected on nearly 82 percent of those shots, he's clearly learning the effectiveness of working his way to the charity stripe.
When the Knicks have struggled offensively this season it's been because too many players have settled for outside shots. Both Smith and Anthony aren't free from blame here, particularly because they're New York's best two players in terms of creating offense on their own.
During his past five games Smith has generated 1.10 points per possession on 20.6 plays a night, according to Synergy Sports (via Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal). As Herring notes, that's a level of efficiency unmatched by all of his NBA peers not named Kevin Durant (1.11 points per play on 25.5 touches per game) and LeBron James (1.10 on 24.1 chances).
The ball movement that makes Woodson's offensive system so effective at times has struggled to maintain that efficiency when the threat of penetration is absent. If defenses know that the Knicks have no intentions of putting the ball on the floor, it becomes drastically easier to stay at home on New York's outside shooters.
But Smith's decision to attack the basket isn't just creating space for his perimeter-reliant teammates or giving Anthony room to create his own offense.
Can Smith maintain this level of play?
It's also forcing defenses to give Smith ground or risk seeing him blow past them on the way to the basket. Considering he's shooting 47.2 percent on unguarded catch-and-shoot situations and just 31.7 percent with a defender on him (according to Synergy, via Herring) he's actually improving his chances of rediscovering his three-point shot by moving away from it.
Despite moving into a virtual tie with the Indiana Pacers for the Eastern Conference's second seed, the Knicks still face a tough road ahead come playoff time. Their frontcourt has been decimated by injuries, and there's no guarantee that these players (notably Tyson Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire) will be able to put forth the same production when/if they return to the floor.
But Smith gives Knicks fans hope for even brighter days to come.
His newly found versatility has made him nearly impossible to game-plan for, while also giving New York a powerful two-handed offensive punch with Anthony.
It's tough to disregard eight-plus seasons of inconsistent results and declare that Smith can lead a team in the postseason.
But lately it's even tougher to remember what kind of a player Smith used to be.