On Thursday night, J.R. Smith steps into the fire. Smith has the distinct misfortune of being the Cavaliers starter most likely to match up with Klay Thompson—an assignment as taxing as any in the league. Its demands begin long before Thompson ever has the ball and do not cease until Thompson leaves the game entirely. Every minute in between is filled with sharp curls, hard cuts, run-outs in transition, and guard-to-guard screens, all blended together so seamlessly that it is essentially impossible to distinguish decoy action from the real thing. Not that such a distinction really matters against a team that reads and reacts as well as the Warriors, which may in itself be the problem.
Fall behind Thompson and he will spring free. Lose focus for a second and he’ll likely catch fire. To guard him is to battle a twinned fatigue, the physical and the mental, until something inevitably gives way. Rarely, these days, is it Thompson.
This will be Smith’s lot through significant stretches of the NBA Finals. He’ll have help from Cleveland’s reserves (Iman Shumpert, first and foremost) and the bigs who will try to contain Thompson as he darts around screens. Nevertheless, many possessions will boil down to Smith’s attention and persistence in pursuit of one of the most deadly scorers of the postseason. More will be asked of him in this series than in any previous, in part because the Cavs are fully aware of all that they lose when Smith isn’t on the floor.
Of all the players to attempt five three-pointers a game or more in this year’s playoffs, Smith has posted the single highest three-point shooting percentage (46.2%). His attempts are a mix of open spot-ups and frantic, desperate leaners—a prescription expressive of what Cleveland needs of its supporting casts. There will always be possessions made easy by LeBron James or Kyrie Irving that Smith will only need to complete. Others will be cramped by lags in initiation or the looming shot clock, leaving players like Smith to manufacture a shot from a virtual standstill. He makes far more of those attempts than a role player should have any right to.
Cleveland has a few alternative rotation players capable of the former, but none comes even remotely close to matching Smith’s faculty for more difficult offense. That kind of skill set will be essential as the Cavs encounter their best defensive opponent yet: a team that can run big or small, slow James with excellent individual defense, and cross-match Thompson to cover Irving and challenge Cleveland’s offense at the point of attack. The Cavs will get theirs, but not without grinding down many possessions as they try to push past an agile, effective defense. Smith’s handful of bailout possessions could be a lifeline.
The value of that kind of quaternary option can be compromised if Smith can’t at least give the Cavs survivable defensive minutes on Thompson. It’s an assignment best not handled by James or Irving and of no sense for any big. Smith would claim the job almost by default, though his defensive success previously in the postseason offers room for relative optimism. Diligence, awareness, and industry are not exactly Smith hallmarks; this is the same man, after all, who had the sense of the moment to punch one opponent, body check another, and elbow a third in the face—all in the raised stakes of playoff competition. His broader record suggests the minutes Smith spends guarding Thompson could prove painful to one of them, neither case much serving the Cavs.
Yet all hope for Cleveland in this matchup is not lost—not after Smith locked in to track Atlanta’s Kyle Korver throughout the second round. Korver shot just 33.3% from the field (and 27.3% from the three-point line) while Smith was on the floor in their playoff series, per NBA.com. Even more powerful were all the shots that Smith took away by following Korver as closely as he could. Korver holstered shots that would have gone up against lesser coverage or, in some cases, didn’t even receive a pass because Smith was in good defensive position. Just because this isn’t what we had come to expect of Smith doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of it; the same kinds of weird misjudgements and inattention that make Smith a streaky offensive player can make him an up-and-down defender as well.
If the Cavs can get this version of Smith against Thompson, he might hold up respectably in their matchup—reducing the need for rotation changes and making things easier for every other Cavalier on the floor:
If the Cavs get this version of Smith against Thompson, the Warriors’ second-leading scorer will explode for streaks of easy scores in due time:
Remember that Thompson has just endured seven games of the off-ball blanketing of Andre Roberson, one of the better defensive wings in the league, and the collective length of the Thunder. Moving on to Smith and the Cavs should be like removing a weighted vest—even if both play to their absolute best. Thompson will find openings in this series he never could have dreamed of in his last. Considering all that he was able to accomplish without easy looks, the notion that Thompson might be able to sprint his way around a screen and into a clearing should worry Cleveland. Thompson, after all, is not Korver. It’s one thing to chase a shooter over the top of every screen and look to take away the jumper. Do that to Thompson and he’ll put the ball on the floor, compromising the perimeter and putting more pressure on the Cavs’ interior defense.
Greatest Game 7s in NBA History
2016 NBA Finals
In a testy series of blowouts — and a few blowups — the winner-take-all Game 7 provided the thrilling finale with LeBron James as the finals MVP disarming two-time reigning MVP Stephen Curry and his record-setting Warriors. Playing his sixth straight finals, James almost single-handedly carried Cleveland back into this series and finished with 27 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds as the Cavs defeated the Warriors 93-89 to capture their first championship in franchise history and gave their city its first major sports winner since the Browns won the NFL title in 1964. He also had three blocked shots and two steals, overcoming five turnovers.
2016 Western Conference Finals
The Warriors, who fell behind 35-22 in Game 7 against the Thunder, became the 10th team to rally from a 3-1 deficit and win a postseason series after beating Oklahoma City 96-88. League MVP Stephen Curry scored 36 points with seven 3-pointers to finish with an NBA-record 32 in a seven-game series, and also had eight assists.
2015 Western Conference First Round
Clippers point guard Chris Paul delivered a driving bank shot over 6' 11" Tim Duncan to KO the defending champion Spurs 111-109 in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series. The teams traded the lead 31 time, and neither held an advantage of more than three points over the final 5:26. Paul, who strained his left hamstring in the first quarter and missed more than seven minutes to receive treatment, hobbled to a team-high 27 points—the last two on this improbable heave off his injured leg with one second left.
2013 NBA Finals
LeBron James scored 37 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and simply controlled everything down the stretch to win his second consecutive NBA title and second Finals MVP award. James made five three-pointers, defended Tony Parker when he had to, and did everything else that could be expected from the best player in the game in the Heat's 95-88 victory over the Spurs.
2010 NBA Finals
Injuries, fatigue and a poor night of shooting didn't stop Kobe Bryant from acquiring a second consecutive NBA championship and his fifth overall. Despite his unsightly 6-for-24 shooting, Bryant (23 points, 15 rebounds) led the Lakers to a gritty 83-79 Game 7 win over their storied rivals. The basketball certainly wasn't the best from either team -- the Lakers' shot 32.5 percent from the field and missed 12 free throws, while the Celtics committed 15 turnovers and were outrebounded, 53-40 -- but L.A. rallied from a 13-point second-half deficit for the title win. The Celtics entered the series having never lost a Game 7 in the Finals but left as just the seventh team in history to blow a 3-2 Finals lead after winning Game 5.
2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals
Paul Pierce (41 points) and LeBron James (45) went back and forth in a duel reminiscent of Larry Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins in Game 7 of the conference semifinals 20 years earlier. Pierce's Celtics prevailed 97-92 to wrap up a series in which the home team won every game. The Celtics went on to win the championship, while the loss spurred Cleveland to give LeBron more offensive help by acquiring Mo Williams in the offseason.
2002 Western Conference Finals
The Lakers joined the 1976 Suns (at Golden State) as the only road teams to win a Game 7 in the West finals. Kobe Bryant finished with 30 points in 52 minutes. The Kings missed 14 of 30 free throws and came up small in crunch time with the exception of Mike Bibby, who scored 14 of their last 18 points.
2000 Western Conference Finals
Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant led the Lakers back from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to topple the Blazers 89-84 in Los Angeles en route to their first NBA crown under coach Phil Jackson. "We realize we sort of made cowards of ourselves in the fourth quarter," Portland's Scottie Pippen said after the game.
1998 Eastern Conference Finals
Trailing in the fourth quarter of their first Game 7 in six years, the Bulls overcame Indiana 88-83 behind Michael Jordan's 28 points. The Bulls went on to beat the Jazz in the NBA Finals to complete their second three-peat.
1995 Western Conference Semifinals
Guard Mario Elie nailed a go-ahead three-pointer from the corner with 7.1 seconds left as the Rockets won 115-114 at Phoenix, completing their comeback from a 3-1 series deficit en route to claiming a second straight NBA title. Kevin Johnson scored 46 points for the Suns.
1990 Western Conference Semifinals
While Blazers center Kevin Duckworth provided an emotional lift by playing for the first time in the series after missing the previous six games with a broken hand, it was Clyde Drexler's five free throws in the final 26.2 seconds of overtime that clinched Portland's 108-105 win. The Spurs had the ball with the game tied 103-103 and about 30 seconds left, but Rod Strickland threw a no-look pass to no one in particular, and then he committed a breakaway foul on Drexler that led to two free throws and possession for Portland.
1988 NBA Finals
Facing an upstart Detroit team in their third Game 7 of the playoffs, the Lakers defended their NBA championship with a 108-105 victory in Los Angeles. Finals MVP James Worthy led the way with 36 points and 16 rebounds, while the Pistons were weakened by Isiah Thomas' lingering ankle injury.
1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals
Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta's Human Highlight Film, exploded for 47 points in a stirring showdown with Larry Bird. But Bird saved his best for last, scoring 20 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter to help the Celtics escape 118-116.
1987 Eastern Conference Semifinals
The defending champion Celtics took a 3-1 series lead over Milwaukee before coach Don Nelson's Bucks stormed back to knot the series. The Bucks even led for most of Game 7, but their late cold spell, combined with Larry Bird's 13 fourth-quarter points, gave the Celtics a 119-113 victory.
1986 Eastern Conference Semifinals
Milwaukee gained a measure of revenge after losing to Philadelphia in the playoffs in four of the previous five seasons. This time the Sidney Moncrief- and Terry Cummings-led Bucks survived 113-112 after Julius Erving missed an open 15-footer with two seconds left.
1984 NBA Finals
In the first Finals duel between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird (pictured earlier in the series), the Celtics survived the Lakers' late comeback to win the decisive game 111-102. Cedric Maxwell scored 24 points for Boston and Finals MVP Bird added 20 points and 12 rebounds.
1981 Eastern Conference Finals
A tight series between two 62-win teams fittingly went down to the wire. Larry Bird hit a go-ahead bank shot in the final minute as the Celtics rallied from a six-point deficit in the final 4:30 to beat Philadelphia 91-90.
1970 NBA Finals
After hobbling off the court early in Game 5 with a torn thigh muscle, Willis Reed made a surprising and triumphant return moments before tip-off for the deciding game. Buoyed by his presence — and his scoring the first two baskets of the game — the Knicks won the title 113-99 behind Walt Frazier's 36 points and 19 assists.
1969 NBA Finals
The Celtics nearly squandered a 17-point fourth-quarter lead but, thanks in part to Don Nelson's famous last-minute shot near the free-throw line, held on to win 108-106. Bill Russell, the NBA's greatest winner, retired as a player after collecting his 11th title.
1965 Eastern Division Finals
After Red Auerbach had lit his traditional victory cigar with his Celtics leading 110-103, the 76ers closed the gap to 110-109 and had possession with seconds left. But as Hal Greer tried to inbound to Chet Walker, Boston's John Havlicek stole the pass, leading longtime Celtics play-by-play man Johnny Most to famously cry, "Havlicek stole the ball! Havlicek stole the ball!"
1962 NBA Finals
In the midst of winning eight consecutive championships, the Celtics escaped 110-107 in overtime. The Lakers had an opportunity to win it in regulation, but Frank Selvy missed a mid-range shot in the closing seconds.
1957 NBA Finals
A rookie center named Bill Russell finished with 19 points and 32 rebounds, and fellow rookie Tom Heinsohn had 37 points and 23 rebounds as the Celtics overcame a combined 5-for-40 shooting performance from Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman to prevail 125-123 in double overtime. It was Boston's first NBA championship.
That was a feasible strategy for Smith (and Shumpert) in last year’s Finals when Timofey Mozgov occupied the middle, though it’s less so when Tristan Thompson, Channing Frye, or Kevin Love might be all that stands between Thompson and the rim. Those three will do fine in spots, but none is as intimidating around the rim as Mozgov; Klay will attempt shots and draw fouls that he might have talked himself out of last year or even in the last round, simply because there isn’t as much to fear around the basket.
Cleveland could try switching on Thompson’s off-ball screens, but doing so creates clear mismatches and additional strain in their defensive communications. Shumpert could conceivably steal some of Smith’s minutes if things go south, but in doing so would cost the Cavs some offensive dynamism without greatly improving their ability to trail roving threats like Thompson. Irving will also log big minutes in this series as a matter of necessity, which will create more defensive issues that limit the Cavs’ structural alternatives. There are no great answers for Cleveland, as is so often the case for Golden State opponents. It all starts with the leverage of a single, tilted matchup that feeds into another, which feeds into another. No playoff opponent in the past two years has yet escaped the spiral.