Ask the New York Knicks which player is most crucial to the team making a deep playoff run and invariably the answer almost always comes back: J.R. Smith. The Knicks sixth man – now firmly entrenched, and accepting of the role – has always been considered a mercurial guard, capable of shooting you in, and out, of a game with any type of shot you could imagine.
Season 2012-13 has brought some change in Smith's game. He's playing much more under control – and within the confines of Mike Woodson's offense. Smith, along with the rest of his teammates have bought into the coach's system which has been central to the Knicks best start since the 1993 season (4-0). If New York wish to compete with the firepower of a Miami, or the team-oriented Boston core, they're going to need players like J.R. and Ronnie Brewer to step up like they did tonight against Dallas.
As great as Anthony is offensively, there will be nights where he may struggle or, like tonight, get into foul trouble. With Dallas playing as if they weren't aware both Shawn Marion and Dirk Nowitzki weren't with the team, and the score precariously placed at 67-66 in favor the home team, Melo picked up his fourth personal foul with 7:30 still left to play in the third. Enter Smith, he scored 9 of his 22 for the game (8/16 F/G) after Anthony went to the bench (where he stayed for the rest of the quarter). But, it wasn't just offense that Smith provided, he was deflecting balls, rebounding, forcing turnovers with his high-energy defense.
He took over the load of carrying the team when it's best player was out. That's been the biggest improvement in Smith's game this season, reading the play and acting accordingly. Of his 16 field goal attempts, only one was not withing the flow of the offense (a long two with the shot clock running down). "[I had to be] aggressive. Our best scorer is out the game right now and my main focus is to get other guys open. I can get my shot off whenever I want so just make sure that Steve [Novak], Pablo [Prigoni], 'Sheed [Rasheed Wallace], everybody's playing defense, communicating. As long as we maintain our defense, we'll be fine on offense," inists a clearly more mature Smith about his third quarter takeover.
Anthony acknowledged the contribution after the game.
"We need that. We need that from J.R. We needed that offensive power that he had, and especially with the unit that he comes in with, you know for them to get up and down the court and play defense, [get some] steals, it opens the game up for everybody," said Anthony.
The biggest bonus for New York is the compatibility of it's two main offensive guys. It's a tandem that can cause match-up problems for anyone. "Once he [Carmelo] gets it going it's so much easier for me, [because] I'm the first pass out the double team so I've gotta make decisions on [whether] I'm open or swing it the weak side. It's great to where we feed off each other," says Smith.
If the modern day NBA has taught us anything its that you need closers in this league, and now New York has two they can consistently rely on according to defensive anchor Tyson Chandler. "It's big time 'cos those are our closers. We're going to leave them in there every night, especially down the stretch, and Melo's been delivering as well as J.R."
2012-13 has so far brought less isolation plays and a more team oriented approach from Smith, he's even averaging a career high 3.25 dimes per outing. Though four games is a very small sample to measure, if Smith can keep up this production, the maturation of J.R. Smith may just coincide with the deepest Knick playoff run since 1999. Only time will tell.
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