If I were to tell you before the season that Smith would end up taking a career-high 15.4 shots per game, 4.4 more than his career average, you probably wouldn't expect that to be a formula for success.
But Smith's presence in the lineup has been one of the major reasons why the team has not only survived the loss of Amar'e Stoudemire but has thrived in his absence.
And though he isn't exactly a different player in 2013, he's doing a better job of channeling his talent, which might have to do with the goatee roaming the sideline.
Coach Mike Woodson and J.R. Smith have talked openly about their relationship—a relationship that appears tighter than what the eye suggests. Smith recently referred to it as "funny" (per SI.com's Rob Mahoney), saying it's like father-son off the court but also said, "I love playing for him."
A happy J.R. Smith means a productive J.R. Smith.
I just look at the game totally different. A lot of times, I was trying to score as many points as I could just because I knew that would [tick] George off and do certain things I knew would get him mad. But at the same time, I couldn't look at it that way because I wasn't winning that situation, anyway, which I didn't.
I'd like to think that Smith's unreliable play in Denver might have had something to do with his feelings toward the coach. The fact that he truly likes coach Woodson and is able to take his criticism constructively has allowed him to play his game without a personal agenda to attend to in the process.
Smith continued to tell Newsday,
More than anything, if I go out and do something I'm not supposed to be doing and not preparing right for the game, not only do I feel like I let my teammates down, I feel I let my coach down. It's the first time in a long time I really care about not letting my coach down.
Nobody has ever questioned J.R Smith's abilities. He's an elite NBA athlete and one of the most talented scorers in the game. But he's earned the reputation as a volatile ball hog who's more likely to shoot you out of games than keep you in them.
As a result, the market for Smith this past summer was nearly non-existent. He signed with the Knicks for less than $3 million a year for the next two seasons, a contract that would normally reflect a player who's just trying to make an NBA rotation.
But despite the small paychecks, Smith is averaging a career-high 17.4 points per game, and more importantly, the Knicks are winning with J.R. shooting the ball.
Woodson has given J.R. Smith the green light he's always wished for but has kept his hand close to the dimmer. Smith has interpreted Woodson's light not as a free pass to let them fly but as a sign that the coach has the confidence in him to score on whatever defender he faces.
The idea that Smith knows he has the trust of his coach has been vital toward his success. The off-games will come. The heat checks and forced shots are inevitable. But Smith has found ways to bounce back from struggles and at times shoulder the load alongside Carmelo Anthony, something he wasn't able to do consistently with Denver.
And Mike Woodson's role as mentor and friend have allowed Smith to blossom into the player his talent suggests he should be.
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