J.R. Smith didn’t find out he was starting Sunday afternoon’s game against Denver until less-than-half-an-hour before tip-off, but the mercurial guard rewarded coach Derek Fisher’s trust in his ability to break out of a slump by scoring 28 points in his most efficient performance of the season (10-for-16 F/G’s), helping the Knicks snap a seven-game skid, beating the Denver Nuggets, 109-93.
Smith has long been considered the Knicks’ second-scorer, the guy who can help shoulder some of the responsibility when defenses load up on Carmelo Anthony, but, so many times he’s remained inconsistent -disappearing when the team needs him.
Leading up to Sunday’s game, Smith had been averaging just 9.6 points on 43% shooting, but the coaching staff encouraged him to remain aggressive. Smith heeded their words and even stayed behind in practice on Saturday to work on his shooting – at game pace.
“I was going game speed,” Smith said. “A lot of times when you get shots up in the practice facility it is more technique. I was cutting hard and taking shots I would take in the game and it transitioned over.”
Fisher liked what he saw and made the decision to give Smith his first start of the season.
“With J.R., today started yesterday. He had a workout after practice yesterday for maybe 10 minutes,” said Fisher. “It was as intense and as hard as an individual player can work in the shooting session, and I thought it raised his level of play and intensity for today.
“The performance on the Garden floor doesn’t start the day, or night, you play. They start the day or the week before.”
Fisher said he selected Smith to start over Tim Hardaway Jr. because “we thought J.R. could give us some punch with our offense, not only with his ability to make shots but his ability to make plays.”
Smith was aggressive from the opening tip, despite the early 1pm start. He had 8 points in the first quarter.
“I wanted to be aggressive, but at the same time, I didn’t want to force anything,” said Smith. “I tried to let the game come to me as opposed to forcing it.”
When Smith does indeed let the game come to him the results for New York are almost always positive. Iman Shumpert, the team’s usual starting two-guard but missing yesterday due to injury, is the Knicks’ second-leading scorer, but is only averaging 12.4 points per game. New York has dug themselves a hole very early in the season, but if they have any chance of climbing their way back above .500, an efficient Smith will be crucial.
“When [Smith] plays like that, and with that type of emotion, it is good for us as a ball club,” stated Amar’e Stoudemire.
Often times this season, Carmelo Anthony has been the lone force on the offensive end, but on Sunday he had an equal in the boxscore. The relief was noticeable on Anthony’s face post-game.
“I didn’t have to do it all. He was there, he was always moving, he was efficient,” Anthony said of Smith. “We needed that, he needed that for his confidence. He is a big part of this team.
That’s the difference a consistent Smith makes.
Feature image credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke