The Wrong J.R. Smith Showing Up at Most Inopportune Time for Cavs in NBA Finals

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterJune 12, 2015

Ken Blaze/USA Today Images

CLEVELAND — J.R. Smith arrived at Game 4 of the NBA Finals with a fedora on his head and a hoverboard beneath his feet. He glided through the arena corridors, a portrait of cool.

The sleek scooter is called a PhunkeeDuck, and it was given to Smith, the Cleveland Cavaliers guard, by his friend Dave Osokow, who is also the company's director of client relations.

Who better to promote a funky new toy than the funkiest player on the Finals stage?

"It's J.R.," a smiling Osokow said late Thursday, after the Golden State Warriors tied the series with a 103-82 Game 4 victory. "It fits his personality."

Truly, if there is any NBA player for whom it seemed perfectly natural to cruise into the Finals on a whirring, glowing, space-age skateboard, it is Earl Joseph Smith III.

In 11 NBA seasons, Smith has tried on many labels: scorer, gunner, good guy, bad guy, entertainer, mischief-maker, fire-starter, flake. One thing, though: J.R. Smith always seems to have a good time being J.R. Smith.

"He's his own man, which is cool," Osokow said.

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 11:  J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers arrives on a Phunkeeduck prior to Game Four of the 2015 NBA Finals at The Quicken Loans Arena on June 11, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that
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The peril of being an NBA iconoclast is that the rollicking party ends the moment your shot stops falling, and then your quirky individuality becomes a liability. The shots have indeed stopped falling for Smith, and the gaffes are outnumbering the glamor plays.

Smith was a disaster Thursday"Horses---t" in his wordsmissing 10 of his 12 shots from the field and all eight of his attempts from three-point range, making him just the third player ever to go 0-of-8 or worse from the arc in a Finals game.

Asked what was going on with him, Smith said flatly, "A lot. Too much to think about right now."

If this were an anomaly, Smith could afford to shake it off. It is not.

He opened the series with a 3-of-13 performance in Game 1 (a loss), followed by a 5-of-13 line in Game 2 (a win) and a modestly better 4-of-9 showing in Game 3 (a win). He is shooting 29.8 percent for the series, 25 percent from the arc, and he could have cost the Cavs a win in Game 2 with a late flurry of boneheaded fouls and turnovers. In four games, he has earned just two free throws—a startling statistic for a player of his skills.

This is Smith's first Finals, as it is for most of the key players in this series. The stakes are high for all involved, but perhaps most especially for a player seeking redemption after a career lined with chaos and infamy.

Since the moment he arrived, as an audacious preps star in 2004, through stints in New Orleans, Denver and New York, Smith has repeatedly earned attention for the wrong reasons: suspensions, fights, technical fouls, run-ins with coaches, Twitter beefs, late-night antics and on-court hijinks.

Teammates generally love him. Fans adore him, unless he's shooting their team out of a game. This is, after all, the player whose proud motto is, "When in doubt, shoot the ball."

But he is never dull, and those shooting benders are often followed by a scoring explosionwitness Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, when Smith dropped 28 points (including eight three-pointers) on the Atlanta Hawks.

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 11:  J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers goes to the basket against the Golden State Warriors in Game Four of the 2015 NBA Finals on June 11, 2015 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. Ohio.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowled
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Yet the Finals spotlight burns hot, causing even the most audacious personalities to recoil. Smith would not be the first to succumb to the pressure.

"I don't think it's pressure," Smith's father, Earl, told Bleacher Report on his way out of the arena. "I think he's just thinking too hard. All you've got to do is just catch and shoot. You're thinking while you're shooting the ball. That's why he's not making them. You can see the difference in his rhythmat least I can, anyway."

This is the worst time for Bad J.R. Smith to return. The Cavaliers are missing two All-Stars, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, making Smith their best scoring option after LeBron James.

"They need to find another scorer within the offense, and right now it has to be him," said Chris Smith, J.R's brother, who also attended the game. "They got to find him easier shots."

"He wants to do really well, so he's anxious," Chris Smith added. "I just feel like his moment is going to come. And when it comes, it's going to come big."

J.R. Smith has enjoyed some of the best months of his roller-coaster career since the Knicks shipped him here in January. Like a lot of NBA misfits, he’s looked a lot better playing next to James, the ultimate teammate. But Smith thrived as the Cavaliers’ fourth or fifth option, not as the No. 2—a role that has often fed into his worst tendencies and produced messy results.

Eight days into the Finals, attrition and fatigue are taking their toll on the Cavaliers.   

Coach David Blatt has been using a strict seven-man rotation, with Smith as his only guard off the bench. Matthew Dellavedova, Irving's replacement, was hospitalized for cramps and dehydration after Game 3. James has been carrying a massive burden, averaging 35.8 points, 8.3 assists and 12 rebounds per game in the series while playing 45.8 minutes per game.

The first two games went into overtime. The last three games were played over a five-day span, with a cross-country flight mixed in. By late Thursday, the shorthanded Cavaliers looked utterly spent—and in no position to deal with the Warriors' small-ball lineups and frenzied pace.

"It seemed to have an impact on us, yes," Blatt said of the taxing schedule.

Dellavedova, the plucky, surprise hero of these Finals, turned back into a pumpkin Thursday, going 3-of-14 from the field. Iman Shumpert (2-of-9) was invisible. If not for Timofey Mozgov's dominance in the paint (28 points, 10 rebounds), the Cavaliers might have lost by 40.

It's down to a best-of-three series, with two of those games in Oakland. James cannot end this city's half-century title drought without help, and Smith, for all of his faults, remains the Cavaliers' best hope.

After a string of maddening, Bad J.R. nights, he seems overdue for another J.R. joyride.

"Oh, it's coming," Earl Smith said with a chuckle. "It's coming."

The Smith family is nothing if not confident.

"He'll be all right," the elder Smith said. "He's just got to keep shooting."

No one has ever needed to say that twice to Earl Joseph Smith III, the NBA's very own funky duck.

Howard Beck 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, @HowardBeck.


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