J.R. Smith's Latest Infraction Comes at Worst Possible Moment for Cavs

Alec Nathan@@AlecBNathanFeatured ColumnistApril 28, 2015

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No more than 30 minutes after the Cleveland Cavaliers announced Kevin Love would miss the entirety of the Eastern Conference Semifinals with a dislocated left shoulder and labrum tear, the NBA made a swift decision regarding J.R. Smith's punishment for striking Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder in the face during Cleveland's 101-93 Game 4 win Sunday afternoon.

According to ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin, Smith will miss the first two games of Cleveland's second-round series:

Dave McMenamin @mcten

NBA rules two game suspension for J.R. Smith. One game for Kelly Olynyk.

Shortly after the suspension was announced, Cleveland's 2-guard posted an apology to teammates and fans on Instagram:

Smith's physical transgression is the latest in a long line of reckless on-court decisions that have prompted the league to take disciplinary action.

Kenny Ducey of WFUV provided an overview of Smith's lengthy list of infractions:

Kenny Ducey @KennyDucey

A history of J.R. Smith's fines and suspensions since 2012 http://t.co/Y90W6BNaT5

The last time Smith was suspended for clocking an opponent in the noggin, it was during the New York Knicks' 4-2 first-round victory over the Celtics in 2013. Following a league-mandated absence in Game 4, Smith was incapable of finding the rhythm that earned him Sixth Man of the Year honors just days earlier.

Upon returning from the suspension, Smith shot 29 percent from the field over the next eight games as the Knicks slipped past the Celtics before getting bounced in the second round by the third-seeded Indiana Pacers.

Smith's flippant approach isn't confined to postseason debauchery, though (h/t Reddit user yellomamba). 

Just ask Thabo Sefolosha:

Or Goran Dragic:

Finding a Fix

Not only does Smith struggle to keep his emotions in check, but his behavior is also producing consequences detrimental to Cleveland's playoff survival.

"I've been in this situation before in the playoffs, and it's not a good feeling to go into," Smith said, according to Northeast Ohio Media Group's Chris Haynes. "A new team, a new situation, feeling like things are coming on the up and up and to be 'back in this situation again' is nothing I want to happen, and unfortunately my team is going to pay for it more than anything."

It was bad enough that the Cavaliers were already without one floor-spacer in Love, but they just lost a 39 percent three-point shooter in Smith.

In other words, Smith's lack of foresight has put head coach David Blatt in an even greater bind. The Cavs have relied on space to generate open looks for LeBron James and Kyrie Irving throughout the season, and that core principle is in jeopardy of being squashedat least temporarily.

But even a momentary slip-up could be enough to crush Cleveland's championship hopes.

While adjustments are unavoidable parts of the postseason equation, the scope of Cleveland's impending alterations spans well beyond game-to-game personnel tweaks and minutes limits.

All of a sudden, the Cavaliers need to concoct a new winning formula—one that devotes more minutes to Iman Shumpert and unglues some of the team's veteran sharpshooters from the pine.

And from a chemistry standpoint, that's bad news.

Shumpert is the logical choice to take Smith's place in the starting lineup—as he should be. However, the five-man unit of Irving, Shumpert, James, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov played a grand total of 13 minutes together during the regular season.

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 21: Kelly Olynyk #41 of the Boston Celtics tries to block Iman Shumpert #4 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first half during Game Two in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on April
Jason Miller/Getty Images

The results in that tiny sample were positive, but making a fuss over efficiency ratings during a minuscule stretch would ignore the fact that rapid cohesion remains a major concern.

Shumpert doesn't space the floor like Smith, evidenced by his 33.8 percent three-point conversion rate during the regular season. That percentage then plummeted to 25 percent in the first round against the Celtics despite 62.5 percent of his attempts coming from the corners. And even though all of Shumpert's first-round threes came with the closest defender more than four feet away, according to SportVU player-tracking data, he still couldn't find a rhythm.

If defenses can leave Shumpert to help on James and Irving and not fear getting burned repeatedly from three, Cleveland's coveted space will shrink as defenses aim to pack the paint.

Interestingly enough, the Chicago Bulls—Cleveland's likely second-round opponent—are already masters at packing the paint under the tutelage of Tom Thibodeau. Thus, deploying Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson as interior deterrents is one way to force the Cavaliers into settling for less efficient long-range jumpers. 

"We only can control what we can control," James said, per Haynes. "If Love is out and if J.R., whatever happens with him, then it's the next man up. It's the next man up. We have guys that have been able to step up."

James Jones and Mike Miller are alternatives, too, but they offer singular jump-shooting skill sets and will assuredly hamper Cleveland's best defensive efforts as swingmen at the 3 or small-ball shooters working in place of Love at the 4.   

And again, the loss of Love looms large. The Cavaliers were already at a disadvantage without the league's pre-eminent stretch-4,  and now two holes need to be filled with far less dynamic scorers. 

But regardless of who slots in where, the Cavaliers are fighting an uphill battle. As Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick explained, Cleveland doesn't have much proof of concept when it comes to lineups not featuring Love and Smith:

Ethan J. Skolnick @EthanJSkolnick

With JR Smith suspended 2 games, David Blatt can try a lot of different lineups, but few have played more than 15 minutes together

At this point, Smith needs to hope his suspension is a minor setback that sets up a major comeback. Because if he can't atone for his mistakes in short order, fingers will be pointed his way as a reminder of the disappointment he helped cause.

All statistics are current as of April 27 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless noted otherwise.


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