The ongoing saga of Knicks shooting guard J.R. Smith took a most unexpected turn on Thursday night, when head coach Mike Woodson benched him for the entire 48 minutes of New York's 102-92 win over the Miami Heat.
That's right, Knicks fans: It finally happened!
With Smith stuck firmly to the bench, his teammates thrived against the defending champs. Carmelo Anthony continued his recent stretch of All-World play with 29 points on 12-of-24 shooting, eight rebounds, five assists and two steals. Iman Shumpert picked up where he left off in Texas, with 12 points, nine rebounds and three assists. Raymond Felton had his best assist game in nearly three years, according to The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring. And the duo of Andrea Bargnani and Amar'e Stoudemire combined for 33 points.
The Knicks played a more controlled, even-keeled game than usual, free of the poor stretches which usually plague them. They moved the ball fluidly, even during the fourth quarter, when the team has usually been content simply to dump the ball in to Melo. It was a fine team effort.
Mike Woodson finally got the best out of his squad, and it should come as no surprise that the Knicks played better after he finally disciplined Smith.
A Long Time Coming
Perhaps no coach in the NBA uses the word "accountability" more often than Mike Woodson.
It is a safe, generic word—pleasing to the ear of the common fan, yet impossible to measure. But even casual Knicks observers could tell that their wasn't a whole lot of accountability in the Knicks' locker room.
Woodson's seemingly hypocritical stance on accountability was embodied by his treatment of J.R. Smith. Sure, Smith was suspended by the league for the first five games for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Sure, he continually ignored the coach and embarrassed the team with his shoelace antics.
And sure, he cost the team a chance to win its Jan. 3 game against Houston with perhaps the single dumbest shot in the history of basketball. But Woodson rarely, if ever, held him accountable for his actions.
Perhaps no coach has ever gone as far in support of a boneheaded player than Woodson has in support of J.R. Smith. In spite of his subpar play and bizarre acts of defiance, Smith came into Thursday ranked second on the team in minutes per game, behind only Carmelo Anthony, per Basketball Reference. Woodson even passed blame for that game-losing Houston shot on the guy who passed Smith the ball, Beno Udrih.
Smith was fined $50,000 by the league on Wednesday for attempting to untie an opponent's shoelaces for the second game in a row. That second shoelace incident seemed to push Woodson over the edge. He did not discuss Smith with reporters before the game, but his actions spoke much louder than his words.
The fans and media waited for Smith—the reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year—to enter the game at his usual time, near the end of the first quarter. But Smith remained on the bench. By halftime, the audience realized Smith wasn't likely to pay.
He did, however, cheer on his teammates in the fourth quarter.
J.R. SMITH, PROFESSIONAL CHEERLEADER! pic.twitter.com/75wqzjOtj5— Jonah Kaner (@JonahKaner) January 10, 2014
How the Knicks Won
With Smith on the bench, Woodson gave some of his minutes to Iman Shumpert, who played in a career-high 43 against Miami. It's nice to see Woodson put a little more faith in the third-year swingman—a player who has occasionally butted heads with Woodson, per Marc Berman of the New York Post.
Believe it or not, Smith's absence did not mean more minutes for promising rookie shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr., who played only 14 minutes, four minutes below his season average. Hardaway did make his presence felt, however, with this vicious put-back dunk at the end of the third quarter.
Instead of replacing Smith with Hardaway, Woodson went big, doubling down on the maligned frontcourt duo of Andrea Bargnani and Amar'e Stoudemire.
Per Bryan Gibberman of The Knicks Wall.
No mistake here...Melo, Amar'e & Bargs played together for 21 minutes tonight. They outscored the Heat by 15 with a 141.4 ORtg & 101.7 DRtg— Bryan Gibberman (@Gibberman10) January 10, 2014
That trio had been horrible together this season before Thursday. In 147 total minutes, the Stoudemire/Bargnani/Anthony frontcourt have been outscored by 16.4 points per 100 possessions this season. That group worked against Miami, but it's not guaranteed to work going forward.
The most encouraging performance on Thursday was clearly turned in by Raymond Felton. Felton has struggled with numerous leg and groin injuries this year, and has not come close to matching his performance from 2012-13. The Knicks are a different team when he is hitting shots, driving into the paint and running the pick-and-roll. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come.
Where does this leave J.R. Smith?
After the win, Woodson still refused to discuss Smith's benching. Per Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix:
Mike Woodson: "I'm not going to talk about JR." Refuses to even acknowledge if he was healthy enough to play. Ridiculous.— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) January 10, 2014
The Knicks are one bad p.r. blunder after another. If Woodson just says he is disciplining JR for one game, that's it. Instead, it's a mess.— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) January 10, 2014
But Anthony was adamant that he expected Smith to play in the Knicks' next game, per Herring:
Melo, on JR: "Mentally, he's good. He should be good. It's not life or death. ... I need him Saturday in Philly."— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) January 10, 2014
Smith, meanwhile, was not optimistic about his future with the team. Per ESPN NY's Ian Begley:
J.R. Smith was asked if he believes his future is w/the #Knicks: "Honestly, I don't even know at this point. At one point I was for sure."— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) January 10, 2014
And so the Knicks remain dysfunctional. Smith will likely play again, and soon. The Knicks can't get anything for Smith in a trade, and they're not going to release him, so these two are locked into their uneasy relationship for the foreseeable future.
But they're finally standing up to Smith and his antics, and they are winning games to boot. That is one giant step in the right direction.