CLEVELAND—He was an afterthought, an unsightly appendage. A “self-professed nightlife aficionado,” according to The New York Times, J.R. Smith had amassed nearly $1 million in fines with the New York Knicks. Many folks considered him the heavily tattooed poster-boy for everything that was wrong with the modern NBA. But on Jan. 6, he was shipped with Iman Shumpert to the listing Cavaliers. You want Shumpert, went the conventional thinking, you’ll have to take Smith, too.
But something strange happened after his arrival in Cleveland. Initially, the Cavaliers had planned to insert Shumpert—for his length and defensive tenacity—into their starting lineup. However, he was slowed by injury and Smith was given the slot and proved a perfect fit. He provided the long-range accuracy, spreading the offense for LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to attack the rim.
“[Smith’s] a big part of everything we do here,” James Jones said. “We’re a team that’s predicated on space, speed and shooting. It all starts and ends with those threes.”
[daily_cut.NBA]Although Smith only knocked down a pair of threes in the Cavaliers' 113-100 opening-round playoff victory over the Celtics, he received more than enough assistance from the team’s "Big Three"—James, Irving and Love—who combined for 69 points, 21 rebounds and 13 assists.
“We know we’re the 'Big Three,'” Irving said. “The biggest thing for us is taking care of each other, winning with our brothers. We set the tone.”
According to Celtics coach Brad Stevens, the tone was set early. “I said to my wife at dinner last night, if it’s 22-22 at the four-minute mark then we’re in trouble. And just under four minutes, it was 22-22. We didn’t make it difficult enough for them to score.”
And scoring is what the Cavaliers do best. With the addition of Smith, the Cavs became only the 11th team in NBA history to sink more than 800 three-pointers in a season. Unfortunately, if you’re into reading tea leaves, none of those previous teams has gone on to win an NBA title. Still, in the regular season, Cleveland is undefeated at home (9-0) when Smith hits three or more treys.
“This is what great teams do to you,” Stevens said. “They put you into a position where you have to pick your poison.”
And against the Celtics, the "Big Three" provided most of the poison, including five three-pointers from Irving. “He takes tough shots,” Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas said. “And he makes tough shots.”
Cleveland also clamped down on defense every time Boston made a run. In the past 37 years, all but three teams not ranked in the top 10 in defense have won a championship. Since the arrival of Smith, Shumpert and center Timofey Mozgov, the Cavs are holding opponent’s field goal percentage to a sterling .458, which ranks eighth in the league.
Smith’s ability to seamlessly fit into the Cavaliers' lineup owes a nod to his longtime friendship with James, who’s often been his off-season training partner in Akron, Ohio. The two, who known each other since high school, were ebullient after a mid-March victory in Dallas, where they posed for Instagrams in the Mavericks’ visitors’ locker room. “We here to stay and with a purpose,” James wrote.
Against the Celtics, surely James—and Cavalier fans—had a purpose. It was in Game Six of the second round of the playoffs in 2010, also against the Celtics, that James played his last game with the Cavaliers before his infamous “Decision.” But now, back at home, he’s got a significantly stronger supporting cast. And though this was the first career playoff game for Love and Irving, they hardly showed any signs of nerves.
“I thought they were phenomenal,” James said. “We didn’t need a kick-start. These are the playoffs.”