There was only one man the ball was going to in last night's game with the Knicks down 1 – minus their leading scorer, Carmelo Anthony, who withdrew prior to the game with knee soreness – and just 7.9 seconds in the game: J.R. Smith. The mercurial guard had almost single-handedly kept the Knicks close to that point, especially after a first quarter in which the Thunder appeared ready to roll over the Knicks who were playing their fourth game in five nights.
What you saw last night was J.R. Smith being J.R Smith. New York were down 9 at the end of the first term, and Smith was scoreless. But, this is the beauty of J.R. – as so many analysts love to point out – he can shoot you into a game in a matter of minutes. In the second quarter, he did just that. Each time the Thunder surged Smith countered with some sort of typical J.R shot. In the middle quarters he exploded for 26 points before Oklahoma City altered their game-plan and switched Kevin Durant onto the rampant Knicks guard for the fourth, which affected his ability to get off those long-range shots he so loves.
In the end though, it came down to one shot. One decision. And, unfortunately for the Knicks, Smith chose poorly. Isolated on the wing against Russell Westbrook, Smith backed down his opponent before turning and attempting a fade-away to his left. After the game he admitted that perhaps it was not the best shot to take in the situation.
"I was trying to get to my spot where I wanted to get to," said Smith post-game. "Turnaround jumpers [are] tough shot in that situation. I really should have went to the basket – take a page out of LeBron's book yesterday – and worse comes to worse, you get the foul. It didn't work like that. My jumper was pretty much good all night except for the fourth quarter.
"It just didn't go in."
Smith ended the night with 36-points on 14/29 shooting – his first 30-point game this season.
Head coach Mike Woodson wasn't too mad at Smith following the game either, he couldn't have been. The game would not have been close if it were not for Smith, Oklahoma's Kevin Durant notched the quietest 34-points, 8 boards and 6 assists you'll see at The Garden and Westbrook had exploded for a 15-point first quarter.
Woodson did agree Smith that he probably should have driven to the basket earlier in the shot-clock on that final play.
"The play was for J.R. and I thought once he actually caught it, he looked up at the clock, when he caught it and faced he could have just gone with it because everybody was plugged into their guys," said Woodson.
"But, he didn't. He settled for the jump-shot – and he's made a couple of those – but it was a hell of a game. We played our hearts out, I tip my hat to our guys.”
New York can take some positives out of the loss. They hung with the defending Western Conference champs until the end – even with the absence of Anthony – and their defense limited the high-octane Thunder to just 60-points over the last three quarters. An effort that reiterates Woodson's belief that his team are good enough to compete with the league's best when they give the type of effort they displayed last night.
"If we play with that type of effort and intensity, it's going to be tough for a lot of teams to beat us," stated Smith.
They didn't get the win they coveted, but the Knicks – and J.R. Smith – showed they can rise to the challenge of facing a top team; a trait that will come in handy when mid-April rolls around.
Image via: Neil Miller, AP