J.R. Smith, Leader? After Another Clutch Performance, the Cavaliers Say So

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterMay 21, 2015

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ATLANTA — The first shot was a bit forced, though not quite to the degree of some others, a curl that led to a step-back, and then a splash, as the ball fit through the rim with 10 seconds left on the shot clock. The second would come in better rhythm, on more solid footing, under less duress and just as accurately. The third? Off the dribble, fading into the corner, with Kyle Korver and Mike Muscala extending their arms to the ceiling. 

Another forced shot.

Another good fit. 

And, as this kept happening, as J.R. Smith kept connecting, sinking 10 of his 16 shots in all and eight of his 12 from behind the arc, and providing the support that LeBron James needed to take a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals, it became apparent that what he was doing was analogous to this latest stop in his career adventure. 

At first, his addition seemed forced.

It's proven a good fit. 

That was the case prior to Wednesday's 97-89 victory, and even in light of Smith's one acknowledged setback, a backhanded smack at Celtics forward Jae Crowder that cost him the first two games of the series against Chicago. But it was emphasized in this contest, with Kevin Love absent and Kyrie Irving seemingly still unable to explode, just how essential Smith has become to the Cavaliers' championship chances, and how that actually isn't as scary as it sounds. 

Remember, Smith wasn't just an afterthought in the pair of trades the Cavaliers made to bolster their roster in December. He was the appendage. He was the kid brother who tags along with your date, the one whose popcorn chewing and soda slurping you must tolerate if you want to take his sibling to the movies. Knicks president Phil Jackson tied Smith's undesirable salary to the more attractive Iman Shumpert, a player the Cavaliers coveted to tighten their defensive leaks, as well as to the draft choice Cavs GM David Griffin needed to pry space-eating center Timofey Mozgov from Denver. James, however, viewed Smith, a workout partner from prior to Smith's first NBA season, as more than a burden.

He deemed Smith an asset. 

"Get him here," James told them. "And I'll take care of it." 

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 20: J.R. Smith #5 high fives LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers after the win for Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals during the NBA Playoffs on May 20, 2015 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expres
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

James laughed Wednesday as he relayed that story.

"Yeah, I got him," he said. "You get him here, I got him. Yeah, I got him." 

Even so, the Cavaliers had to be certain who they were getting. Were they getting the guy who had worn out his welcome in New York, with several incidents of immaturity and a couple of poor postseasons? Or were they getting the guy who, as a 23-year-old in his third season, made 38 playoff three-pointers for a Nuggets squad that advanced to the Western Conference Finals?

Were they getting someone who would buy in?

Or should they just buy him out?

He convinced them, during a visit to the Cavaliers facility, that he was entirely on board, so much so that Griffin famously, and presciently, said that he believed Smith was "ready to take the next step as a human." Smith spoke to the media about the growth in himself and his game, telling Bleacher Report shortly after the trade that "my basketball IQ has gotten much better. My shot selection has gotten much better. It may not seem that way, but I think it has."

He argued then against some of the perceptions, adding, "I've never had a teammate who disliked me. In my eyes, anyway. Everybody I've played with, I've gotten along with. In my eyes, it's hard not to like me. It's for people who don't know me, and just read whatever, or [hear] whatever is said on TV; it's easy to say, 'Oh, he's terrible.' Especially the way I look, with all my tattoos and stuff like that. It looks like that from the outside. But when people know me, they like me. For the most part."

It's been more than five months now. So while it may not last forever, because little ever does, it's unreasonable to characterize his time in Cleveland as anything other than an unequivocal success. 

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 20:  J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots the ball against the Atlanta Hawks in Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2015 NBA Playoffs on May 20, 2015 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User e
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

When James Jones was asked about Smith's issues, on the night of the trade, he insisted upon reserving judgment until Smith arrived, until they played together.


"He's a complementary piece for everything we do," Jones said, in a visiting locker room hotter than Smith had been, in the hours prior. "We have playmakers, we have attackers, we have catch-and-shoot guys. He's our shot-maker. In places like New York, Carmelo [Anthony] is a shot-maker. You have two shot-makers, guys vying. J.R. is the type of guy that...has to take tough shots. He's gonna have to make tough shots. The good teams take tough shots and make them. He's our tough shot-maker. So that's his role. And he embraces them. And we all try to help him get to those spots where we can help him be who he is." 

Then Jones, one of the NBA's wiser men, applied the ultimate compliment, for a 29-year-old who has had some wayward moments.    

"He's a vet now," Jones said. "I think, when he was with New York, he was wondering what being a vet meant. Being a vet means you come in every day, and you set the example for your younger teammates and for your older teammates. You're a leader of a team. That's what he is. He's a leader. I think that's something he was working forward to." 

Jones, like others, sees some similarities to one of his former teammates in Miami, one who happens to be a former teammate (in both New Orleans and Denver) and close friend of Smith as well. That is Smith's kindred inked spirit, and Call of Duty competitor, Chris "Birdman" Andersen. Like Smith, Andersen had a reputation as a wild card prior to joining the Heat on a 10-day contract on January 20, 2013, and then energized and elevated what had been a teetering team, as Miami went 39-3 in his appearances the rest of that regular season.

Chris 'Birdman' Andersen and J.R. Smith have a friendship that dates back to their earliest days in the NBA, when the two would team up at the All-Star Weekend dunk contest when both played for the Hornets.
Chris 'Birdman' Andersen and J.R. Smith have a friendship that dates back to their earliest days in the NBA, when the two would team up at the All-Star Weekend dunk contest when both played for the Hornets.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

"It's all about the redundancy," Jones said. "I think it's just a comfort level and a fit. Like, you embrace it. The complementary parts make J.R. and Bird, makes them look like they fit, it makes them feel like they fit. Because you have a counterbalance in playing style, in personality, in approach. It's a good balance." 

Prior to the playoffs, Bleacher Report spoke with Andersen about Smith's situation, and how he saw it from afar. 

"He's a great teammate," Andersen said. "He's a great, great friend, great teammate on and off the floor. Has a great personality. Has a strong will to be great. I think me and him, and other guys in that light, are always misunderstood. People are going to pile on what they don't understand. It's just part of our DNA to have people tell us that we're going to do something, but always find the will to make it happen. And have the inner strength to keep moving forward and to succeed." 

Andersen saw someone who was smarter than he was when they played together, after finding out who he was. 

"I sat in the gym with him for hours, just shooting and just messing around, and he's over there shooting half-court shots and it just looked effortless," Andersen said. "He's always had that mentality that he's going to be a champion one day." 

Now he has a chance to chase that with James. Again, Andersen wasn't the slightest bit surprised how well they clicked.

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 20:  J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots the ball against the Atlanta Hawks in Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2015 NBA Playoffs on May 20, 2015 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User e
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

"If you're a real good dude, and you have that swag, LeBron just makes it real easy and comfortable for you, if you're just yourself," Andersen said. "We all come from different parts of the Earth, and countries and states. Everybody's going to have a different walk, a different mentality, so it's just who we are. And for all of us to come together and have the same goal and the same drive to achieve something such as a championship, when you put all the pieces together like that, it's a recipe for success." 

It was for Miami, with Andersen providing some life and color.

And it appears so for Cleveland, with Smith doing the same. 

Not every shot will seem ideal, and some didn't seem so Wednesday. But he managed to make as many total shots (10) as in any of his prior 59 postseason games. He hit three more three-pointers (eight) than in any previous postseason game. And he scored 17 of his playoff career-high 28 points in the middle two quarters, when Cleveland took control of the game. He also had eight rebounds, three assists, a steal and several quick closeouts on Kyle Korver, who was just 3-of-5. 

Did he take some bad shots?

Well, that depends.

What if they go in?

"That's my 9-1-1," Shumpert said. "If he hits a late-shot-clock shot, and then he creates another one, and then you give him that wide open one, I'm pretty much done trying to run all the rest of those plays. I kind of want to see how many he's gonna make. 'Cause he's one of those guys, when the rim gets big for him, you can see he'll just pour it in." 

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 22:  J.R. Smith #5 and Iman Shumpert #4 of the Cleveland Cavilers share a moment after J.R. Smiths's reverse dunk against the New York Knicks on February 22, 2015 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.  NOTE TO USER: User expre
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

These are satisfying days and nights for the two former Knicks. Shumpert said that they leaned on each other "huge" following the trade, with "constant conversation" and Smith joining Shumpert at the gym when Shumpert was still recovering from a shoulder injury.

"It was a great move for us, going from fast-paced New York to Cleveland, and everything has calmed down," Shumpert said. "And we just pride ourselves on going to the gym." 

There was some pride in Smith's voice late Wednesday, as he sat at the podium with James, as he reflected on trying to change his reputation.

"It was extremely important because more than anything, my parents," Smith said. "My parents, they know what type of person they raised, and they know what type of person they inspired me to be. So it wasn't really for myself, it was more for them, if not for anybody." 

He later singled out his mother, Ida.

"She's probably my biggest fan," Smith said. "When all those negative things are being said and stuff like that, me personally, I really don't care. But for her, to see her hurting, to see her go through those situations, to see the way she feels, it's a terrible feeling for me because I know I'm putting her in those situations. So, if anything, it's just for her." 

It's the Cavaliers who put him in a different situation several months ago.

It's turned out to be the right one. 

A good fit.

Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.