Throughout a grueling 82-game NBA season, a team will often suffer through droughts, appear lackadaisical, or simply fall on a night in which it was expected to win. This is exactly why every elite squad relies on a spark.
J.R. Smith is the man that ignites the Knicks on both sides of the floor.
A perfect example of Smith’s impact occurred on Tuesday night. With the Knicks trailing the undermanned Magic in Orlando 57-52 at the 9:48 mark of the third quarter, a familiar face jumpstarted New York’s offense. Just moments after checking back into the game, Smith nailed a ridiculous 14-foot fadeaway jumper with the defense draped all over him. He then sunk a runner in the lane to tie the game at 59-59. Two minutes later, Smith buried a 3-pointer, followed by a steal on the defensive side of the floor, and the Knicks were able to generate momentum heading into the final quarter.
Smith scored 16 of his 21 points in the second half against the Magic, leading the second unit and complementing All-Star Carmelo Anthony down the stretch. He hit 7-of-9 attempts from the floor, grabbed three rebounds, dished out two assists, and recorded two steals in 20 minutes of action in the second half. Keyed by Smith’s spectacular play, New York rallied late and defeated Orlando 99-89 to remain unbeaten on the season.
“Anthony lauded the performance of his teammate following Tuesday’s win, “The one thing about J.R., he is definitely buying into what’s our task, defensively, offensively. He’s not trying to do it by himself out there on the basketball court. He’s taking what the defense is giving him and he’s taking advantage of that.”
Over the course of his eight-year career, Smith has been regarded a top-level talent but at times he would veer from the game plan and attempt to take over ball games on the offensive side of the floor. Under the guidance of head coach Mike Woodson, the guard is accepting his role off the bench and flourishing into a mature professional basketball player.
One of the vocal leaders inside the Knicks locker room has certainly taken notice of Smith’s growth this season. “J.R. has a big personality as we all know but he is so locked in and focused this year, he’s just a different player,” Tyson Chandler confirmed. “He came back a different player, he’s really matured he’s really buying in to what the coaches are preaching and he’s been a big help. We obviously know what he is capable of doing on the floor and coming off the bench, he’s been amazing with the second unit.”
The straight out of high school shooting guard is off to a sparkling start to the 2012-13 season. Smith has displayed all the weapons in his arsenal this year, including the long range shooting, step-back midrange jumper, and an underrated off the dribble game. He’s averaging career highs across the board, points per game (18.2), field goal percentage (49.3), free throw percentage (88.9), rebounds per game (4.8), and assists per game (3.2).
“That’s been my biggest thing coming into this season is to be more focused, be more consistent,” Smith admitted. “It just feels good that my teammates are recognizing me and at the same time, I just have to keep it up and keep making them proud.”
All those statistics fail to highlight the drastic improvement on the defensive end of the court. Surrounded by defensive-minded teammates and a coach that demands a focused approach to stopping the opposing team, Smith is utilizing his athletic frame to create havoc. As one of the fastest 2-guards in the league, Smith can outrace just about any wing player and his quick hands lead to steals. Smith ranks No. 7 in the league in steals per game this year at 2.2 each outing. He’s become a thief in the passing lanes and a pest on the perimeter for Woodson’s top defensive unit.
“He’s been able to play three positions as well, he can guard point, he can guard the 2 or the 3 as well. If there’s a mismatch, he’s feisty enough with the big guys to try and hold them down until we can get back whole again,” Woodson acknowledged.
Smith is a fun-loving individual with a gregarious personality. However, by his own admission, Smith needed to take the next step at a pivotal point in his career. At the ripe age of 27, the New Jersey native is beginning to put all the pieces together, maturing on the floor, and seeing the big picture. If he continues to find the balance and provide the spark, Knicks’ opponents will have a difficult time extinguishing the flame Smith creates.