J.R. Smith's absence underscores his importance to Knicks' offense
Because of the makeup of this Knicks team, J.R. Smith's capacity for prolific, implausible and occasionally frustrating shot creation has made him essential. This was all too apparent in the Knicks' offensive flub in a Game 4 loss to the Celtics, a contest that Smith missed after being suspended one game for elbowing Jason Terry during Game 3.
Without its second-leading regular-season scorer Sunday (Smith will return for Game 5 on Wednesday with his team leading 3-1), New York's offense folded itself into Carmelo Anthony's pocket. In 45 minutes, Anthony attempted an astonishing 35 shots from the field and 20 from the free-throw line -- totals that, when combined with his seven turnovers, made him the end point on 51.7 percent of the Knicks' possessions. Even the most ball-dominant players in the league typically cap out, usage-wise, around 35 percent, but Anthony has exceeded that standard in general this series (43 percent usage rate) and was in total control of New York's offense in Game 4.
That ball domination -- and the single-minded way in which Anthony went about it -- turned out to be New York's undoing, and the primary force behind an early and significant deficit that the Knicks couldn't overcome. Some strong complementary performances from Raymond Felton and Iman Shumpert eventually helped close the gap when Anthony was off the floor, and the cumulative weight of Anthony's 20 free-throw attempts made a big dent in Boston's lead as the game progressed. But overall, a Knicks team that managed to score at a rate of 99.8 points per 100 possessions in the first three games of this first-round series was held to a Celtics-like efficiency of 66.4 points per 100 possessions in the first half. That the Knicks were able to recover and force overtime is a hell of a feat, but they undoubtedly know now that it never should have come to that.
Smith's availability alone wouldn't have made shots fall (though the Sixth Man Award winner says the Knicks would have swept the Celtics had he played), but there is a greater offensive influence in play with New York's shoot-first super-sub. Smith has been given ample credit this season for reining in his playing style, mixing his gunslinger mentality with a more prudent and restrained role. Yet it's by Smith's very presence that Anthony, too, has seemingly evolved. Melo is still a fill-it-up scorer with immediate physical advantages, but New York's best stretches this season have come with a universal buy-in to a more stable offensive concept. Anthony was, is and should be a huge part of that revision, but it requires that he lean on teammates like Smith and Felton to help him create more varied offense, or at the very least create a bit of misdirection. There was no revolution of conscience or massive upgrade in skill set for Anthony over the course of this season, but even his slight change in approach had done a world of good in making New York a more dynamic offensive team.
With Smith absent from the rotation, the Knicks retreated into a tired, predictable setup almost immediately. New York had isolated Anthony plenty in the first three games of this series, but there seemed to be a tangible shift in the mindset of both Anthony and his teammates, one visible from the game's opening possessions and sustained through overtime. Setting up Anthony for a one-on-one sequence was no longer a mere contingency to a busted pick-and-roll, but an uncompromising default, as Melo would position himself on the same turf over and over again without even the slightest attempt to manufacture offense through different means*.
*To Anthony's credit, he was still able to create some decent looks against single coverage, but suffered from a poor shooting afternoon and some unfortunate rolls. Those kinds of factors will be in play regardless of Anthony's approach, though there's a particular disadvantage in going to work in isolation -- an inherently low-value possession type -- so consistently when the ball isn't taking favorable bounces.
It's not as if the Knicks suddenly pick up Princeton-style ball movement whenever Smith takes the court, as this team's best creators are still primarily catch-and-dribble types. But we've seen New York's offense go from merely good with Anthony on the floor sans Smith (112.2 points per 100 possessions) to slightly better (113.7) when the two play together, according to the website NBA Wowy. Yet more important than that increase in production is the sustainability gained by diversifying the offense. Anthony is talented enough to carry the Knicks by himself for stretches in a regular-season setting, but in a thoroughly scouted playoff series against a top-tier defensive team, flanking Anthony with another ball-handler gives the Knicks an important adaptability. Felton (who bumps New York's offensive efficiency up to 115.8 points per 100 possessions when playing with Anthony and Smith) only adds to that resilient quality, as all three creators can play off of the movement and placement of one another without oversimplifying the offense to the degree New York readily accepted in Game 4.
Smith is an essential part of that pitch -- to Anthony and coach Mike Woodson both -- for more viable, team-wide offense, and his suspension coincided with New York's strategic regression. There's no doubt that Anthony is New York's best shot creator, just as there was no doubt that Smith's absence would likely require Melo to create even more than usual. But jamming things up with telegraphed, solvable offense only exacerbated the problems caused by Smith's suspension and negated the potential for positive contributions from New York's other role players.
Under the iso-Melo framework, players such as Jason Kidd, Tyson Chandler, Steve Novak and Pablo Prigioni don't much contribute or even space the floor; they're made to be mere onlookers, marginalized to the point of providing negligible value in a floundering offense. Felton, who scored an invaluable 27 points in Game 4, went 5-for-5 from the field in the five minutes he played while Anthony sat (per NBA Wowy), but just 5-for-16 in the 43 minutes in which they shared the court. Some of that can be attributed to a classic Felton hot streak at an opportune time, but Anthony's vacated post on the right wing also opened up the floor and the Knicks' offensive flow, while the iso-centric bent complicated matters for New York's most pivotal dribble-driver. There's a very evident irony in the fact that Smith -- or at least his absence -- symbolizes the virtues of a more balanced, team-centric offense, but in the context of this weird Knicks team that's the counterintuitive function he's come to provide. Smith is still a gunner, but in this role he comes in not only to score but also to relieve; Anthony will get his touches and will even get his isos, but with the benefit of just one more player capable of hitting shots and counterattacking from the weak side, Anthony and the Knicks typically play a more enterprising offensive game. This team can still bog itself down, but Smith's value is in keeping things interesting, keeping things varied and keeping opponents on their toes. His judgment may veer into the absurd and his shot selection may be indefensible at times, but even Smith's erratic support can make for a game-saving benefit.