Earl Joseph Smith III is having a forgettable post-season and that was before he had the brain freeze at the end of NBA Finals Game 1. J.R., as he is affectionately known, is already a NBA champion. He has played in important games. But the knock on J.R. is that he drifts in and out and his attention to detail depends on the moment.
Early in his career the J.R. blame focused on his age and maturity- J.R. entered the NBA straight out of Saint Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey. He was 19 for godssakes, and was expected to act older than his age. But now J.R. is 32 years old, just one year younger than LeBron James.
James had a classic facial response to J.R. dribbling the ball out of a tie game as if the Cavs had the lead. It was as if LeBron was J.R.’s father, considering the anguish on James face.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are Smith’s fifth NBA team. He was drafted by the New Orleans Hornets in 2004, one year before the Hornets drafted Chris Paul. Two years later, he was traded to Chicago and then a week later traded to Denver where he had five good seasons, averaging 14 points a game. After playing in China during the lockout, Smith signed with the Knicks in what seemed a perfect situation, not far from his hometown of New Jersey. He averaged 13 points a game.
This much is true. J.R. Smith loves shooting the ball. He’s just not good at it. In the playoffs, he is shooting less than 40% from the field and less than 40% on threes. His offensive rating is a weaker than weak 98.
Smith is often his worst enemy, as witnessed a couple of nights ago. It’s nothing new. When he left the NBA for China during the lockout of 2011, he didn’t negotiate an opt-out clause to use- just in case- the lockout ended. He was forced to play in China for the entire season. This is the sort of thing that has defined Smith’s career, not paying attention to details, losing focus on important things and having to pay a steep price.
J.R.’s past is littered with J.R. Smith messes that he can’t run away from but the NBA is like any other American community, they love to forgive. But Smith doesn’t make it easy.
His second year in the league he was involved in a brawl after a flagrant foul by Knicks Mardy Collins. The fight caused him to tear his meniscus. The league suspended him ten games. One year later, he was involved in a nightclub incident where he disturbed the peace and destroyed property. He was suspended three games. Five years ago, he was suspended for elbowing Jason Terry and had to sit out a playoff game. That fall, he violated the NBA drug policy and was punished 5 games. He had a shoelace fetish and the league fined him fifty grand for untying opponents shoelaces. A swing at Jae Crowder’s head cost him two playoff games in 2015. Add that to the continued brain freezes in fourth quarters, fouling when it’s not necessary, taking bad shots, making questionable decisions and not knowing the score. George Karl, Smith’s coach in Denver, once said this about one of his questionable plays.
“I just love the dignity of the game being insulted right in front of me.” (George Karl)
Was it an insult, the J.R. brain lock in Game 1? Or, just stupidity?
What it was not was the reason the Cavaliers lost. George Hill had a chance to win the game on his own by doing something he is pretty good at, hitting free throws, and he failed. Kevin Love let Steph Curry drive to the rim unheeded for an and-1. The Cavaliers had an entire overtime but they were mentally burdened by the refs and couldn’t get out of their feelings. J.R. made a mistake but it wasn’t catastrophic. That came later, in overtime.
He has not had a post-season to remember. His PER is a six year low 6.7. He is shooting 18% on long two’s and 23% 3-10 feet. His one specialty, making big shots when needed, has abruptly disappeared.
The question to ask: was it ever Smith? Or, was it LeBron James creating opportunities for Smith? If it was James, if his ability to keep J.R. disciplined and focused was a product of his talent and his leadership then the Cavs are negotiating with themselves on a game by game basis. J.R. is an unknown commodity.
You can’t count on him until that one moment when you can.