Are New York Knicks Title Contenders with J.R. Smith Playing at Elite Level?

Ciaran GowanContributor IIIMarch 31, 2013

J.R. Smith is the hottest player on the league's hottest team right now, and his recent play might be enough to push the New York Knicks into title-contender status.

The erratic guard has played surprisingly consistent basketball of late, making a serious push for the Sixth Man of the Year Award.

Smith has scored 30 in three straight games off the bench, becoming the first player to do so since Ricky Pierce in 1990, and the first in franchise history.

Essentially, he's playing at an All-Star level, which doesn't bode well for the other teams in the East.

Since he came to New York, Smith has been the Knicks' X-factor, and if he can continue to play at this level, it's something the entire league should watch out for.

With Amar'e Stoudemire out with injury and unlikely ever to be the same player he once was, the Knicks were in need of a consistent second scoring option.

Over the last month or so, Smith has emerged as just that.

Smith has always had star-caliber talent, but the mental side of the game has kept him from reaching his potential. Now, though, he has taken it upon himself to attack the basket and find good shots, which has clearly paid off.

Over his last 20 games, J.R. has averaged 22.1 points on 45 percent shooting, including a 38-percent mark from downtown.

Consistency is no longer an issue. The real question now is how good the Knicks can be with Smith playing at this level.

Coming into the season, the Knicks expected Smith to be an effective player off the bench, but if he continues to play like a star, New York will be much better for it.

It may sound like an exaggeration, but if Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler continue to play their games, Smith could be the difference that pushes the team into title-contender status.

As it stands, the Knicks are already one of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference, and a reliable J.R. is just one more weapon they can use to throw at the Miami Heat.

We saw earlier this season that, at their best, the Knicks can beat the Heat. They have two blowout victories already against Miami, and their one loss against them was a close affair.

In that loss, Smith shot 28 percent from the floor and missed 11 three-pointers. Had he been aggressive and taken better shots, it could have been a much different story.

After all, they only lost by six points. A few trips to the free-throw line for J.R. (he had zero in that game) could have made up the difference.

In Knicks victories this season, Smith has shot 44 percent. In losses, his field-goal percentage has dropped to 37 percent.

That's an even bigger impact than Melo's shooting has on the team's success, as his field-goal percentage drops from 44 percent in wins to 42 percent in losses.

Shooting at 44 percent is something a player like Smith can do with relative ease if he attacks the basket and draws fouls.

That's what he's done over the last seven games; as a result, he's shot 54 percent, and the Knicks are undefeated.

For the most part, the Knicks have been one of the league's top 10 teams all season. But in the few games where Smith has played attacking basketball, there's evidence that they can be even better than that.

There's no guarantee that he'll continue to play this way—his past will tell you as much—but if he does, don't be surprised to see New York make a deep run in the playoffs.

All stats from Basketball-Reference and accurate as of March 30, 2013.