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Smith, of course, grabbed an offensive rebound and dribbled out the remaining 4.5 seconds of regulation in the first game of the NBA Finals, seemingly thinking his Cavs were ahead instead of locked in a 107-107 tie with the Golden State Warriors.
While head coach Tyronn Lue said after the game that Smith thought Cleveland was up by one, Smith’s explanation was quite different.
“It was a tie ballgame, and we had a timeout,” he told reporters. “I tried to get enough space because, obviously, KD (Kevin Durant) was standing right there. I tried to get enough space to bring it out to maybe get a shot off. And then I looked over at Bron (LeBron James), and he looked like he was trying to call a timeout. So I stopped. And then the game was over.”
The backlash from fans, media members and current NBA players was incredible. From Joel Embiid and DeMarcus Cousins to CJ McCollum and even Dirk Nowitzki, Smith’s now infamous faux pas sent shock waves through his peers.
For some teams, benching the 32-year-old or cutting his minutes would seem the obvious move. How can a player, in the biggest moment of the season, be trusted with this kind of decision-making moving forward? Especially one who already got suspended by his team for throwing a bowl of soup at a coach earlier this season?
Despite what happened at the end of Game 1 (and the whole soup thing), the Cavaliers can’t afford to turn their backs on Smith.
At his best, he’s an athletic, 6’6″ shooting guard whom Lue has previously described as the team’s best perimeter defender. He’s capable of heating up from deep like few others in the league can, actively seeking contested shots and difficult situations.
At his worst, well, we’ve already seen what happens.
His play may have been the backbreaker for the Cavs, but if Kevin Love, Jordan Clarkson and Jeff Green shoot better than 2-of-17 from three (11.8 percent), or if George Hill makes the second free throw, or if the referees rule a charge on Kevin Durant, or if one of 100 things in the game goes differently, that situation never presents itself.
For the Cavs to have any chance of upsetting the Warriors, they need Smith to produce on both sides of the ball. Their only other options at shooting guard are 37-year-old Kyle Korver and Rodney Hood, who Lue chose not to play in five of the past six games. Hood may get some run in this series, but he’s been awful nearly all postseason.
This leaves Smith, who’s become one of Lue’s biggest fixtures in the rotation. He’s second on the Cavaliers in minutes these playoffs with 32.4 per game—more than anyone outside of James.
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Cleveland has also been 3.3 points per 100 possessions better with Smith on the floor this postseason, a better mark than Love (plus-0.5), Tristan Thompson (minus-1.6) and Green (minus-1.6). Korver has been great (plus-12.0), but the thought of having him guard a member of the Warriors backcourt for extended minutes is terrifying. Lue could go with Hood or Clarkson, but the team has basically combusted with either of them in (minus-13.8 and minus-27.9 on/off ratings, respectively).
Lue has no choice but to stick with Smith, a decision he confirmed during a conference call Friday.
“(Smith’s) going to start. And no, I haven’t lost confidence,” Lue said. “JR can shake off anything, and when everybody tends to count JR out, that’s when he comes through. So he’s definitely going to start again. He’s a big part of what we do. That last play is over, it’s behind us and now we’ve got to move on.”
Since Cleveland looks to switch almost everything on defense, Smith’s 6’6″, 225-pound frame is ideal. He’s quick enough to keep players like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson honest on the perimeter and has the muscle to body up Kevin Durant to keep him from getting into the paint.
Opponents this postseason are shooting a measly 27.4 percent from outside 15 feet with Smith as the primary defender, a mark that’s down 12.2 percent from their normal averages, per NBA.com. Curry, Thompson, Durant and Draymond Green were just 3-of-10 from the field and 2-of-6 from deep in Game 1 when guarded by Smith.
If James continues to commandeer the ball as he did nearly all second half, he’ll need catch-and-shoot guys around him who can get quality looks with little time or air space.
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Smith excels at both, knocking down 39.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot opportunities this postseason and making more of his attempts in tight coverage (defender within 2-4 feet, 36.4 percent) than when considered open (4-6 feet, 31.6 percent), per NBA.com.
There’s also a recent history of success against these Warriors. In 2016, Smith made back-to-back three-pointers in the third quarter of Game 7 to help kill what looked like an insurmountable Golden State run. Smith’s excellent defense of Andre Iguodala at the rim made it possible for James to chase down Iguodala for one of the most famous rejections in NBA history, ultimately leading to the Cavaliers’ first championship. Last season, Smith led the Cavs in three-pointers (18) and three-point percentage (58.1) while chipping in 11.8 points in five Finals games.
Instead, Smith, the team’s third-leading scorer in the opening contest, needs to produce. An emotional person at heart, there’s no doubt he’s taken the loss and his mental lapse harder than anyone. Instead of abandoning him now, Cleveland must embrace Smith and know that one hot shooting game can help heal all previous wounds.
“I would never give up on JR,” James told reporters after Game 1.
The rest of the Cavaliers shouldn’t either.