Knicks' Mike Woodson benches J.R. Smith, won't comment on it

Friday January 10th, 2014

J.R. Smith (right) is used to coming off the bench, but Mike Woodson never called his name against the Heat.
Bill Kostroun/AP

NEW YORK -- There is what it should have been and what it was, and the two didn't come close to matching up. The Knicks should have been celebrating a potentially season-sparking 102-92 win over Miami, the team's fourth win in its last five games, a victory that pulled New York to within one game of the East's final playoff spot.

But overshadowing Carmelo Anthony's 29 points, Raymond Felton's 14 assists and the Knicks whopping 52 points in the paint was this: What is going on with J.R. Smith?

Smith didn't play on Thursday. He dressed, sat on the bench, and he stayed there, presumably a punishment for his bizarre behavior of late. To recap: After untying Dallas' Shawn Marion's shoelaces at the free throw line last weekend -- a goofy move that got a chuckle out of most, including Marion -- Smith was warned by the league not to do it again. He was spoken to by Mike Woodson.

Then, in a mind boggling act of defiance, Smith reached down and tried to untie Detroit's Greg Monroe's laces on Tuesday night. He was slapped with a $50,000 fine and public rebuke from his ordinarily protective head coach.

Then, in a nationally televised game against the two-time champs, Smith was banished to the bench.

A punishment? Obviously. Not that Woodson would acknowledge it.

"I'm not going to comment on J.R.," Woodson said, in response to the second question at his postgame press conference.

Woodson was asked if Smith was healthy enough to play.

"I'm not going to comment on J.R.," Woodson repeated. "Let's talk about the game."

It's fair to want to talk about how the Knicks are playing. After a woeful couple of months, they are starting to show signs of life. The Knicks took two out of three on a recent run through Texas, with only a two-point loss to Houston blemishing the trip. They returned home to beat Detroit, a conference playoff rival, before surging in the second half to beat the Heat. Amar'e Stoudemire (14 points) looked sharp, Andrea Bargnani (19) shot the ball well and the Knicks continued to come up with defensive stops when it counted.

"They outplayed us in the second half," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Give them credit. They played very well."

But, this is a game in early January. The bigger story, particularly if the Knicks hopes to drive any momentum forward, circles around Smith. Woodson didn't want to discuss Smith with the media. Nor, apparently, did he want to discuss the behavior with Smith, either.

"There hasn't been any [discussion with Woodson]," Smith said. "I think that's the most misleading part of it. I could see if I was told [about the benching] but there was no conversation about it."

"My feelings obviously don't matter. I'm just worried about the team."

Smith is a problem, if for no other reason than the Knicks are stuck with him. After a sterling season last year on his way to the Sixth Man of the Year award, Smith has come unraveled. He is averaging 11.3 points, down from 18.1 last season. He is shooting 34.8 percent from the field after connecting on 42.2. percent of his shots last season. He is making 62.8 percent of his free throws, down from 76.2 percent last season. All this after being signed to a three-year, $17 million contract and getting his brother, Chris Smith, on the roster as a bonus.

The Knicks, rival executives say, have made it known that Smith is available, though the market is virtually nonexistent. Smith's contract is reasonable -- $6 million next season, $6.4 million in '15-16 -- but his erratic play and even more erratic behavior make him a toxic asset.

Asked if his future was in New York, Smith was uncertain.

"Honestly, I don't even know at this point," Smith said. "At one point, I was for sure, and now it's rocking the boat. But it is what it is. It's the nature of the business."

Ideally for the Knicks, Smith fights his way through this disastrous week and rediscovers a rhythm on the floor. The Knicks are a better team with Smith's offense off the bench, and at the very least they need his presence in the rotation. Woodson extended Iman Shumpert 43 minutes in the win over Miami, a number he likely won't want to stick him with too often.

In the woebegone Eastern Conference, the Knicks are, remarkably, still very much in the thick of it. A strong second half could push New York into one of the top-five seeds, into a position where they could win a first round series. They need J.R. Smith to do it, and they need him playing his best.

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