It used to be that every great team had one: a guy that believed they were the best, most talented player on the floor, even when they weren’t. This feeling of greatness was primarily contained in the player’s own brain, and came despite ample evidence to the contrary. Whether it’s their neurasthenic reaction to passing up a contested midrange jumper, or a perpetual scowl at their coach’s or teammates’ inability to see what they understand so easily – their own basketball genius – they can be detrimental to a team. Prodigiously talented, they think they should be allowed to show their greatness without the confines reserved for mere basketball mortals.
These players also live for big shots, big games and a national television audience. Some have called these championship team outliers or irrational confidence guys, but their moniker is less important than the mentality – not to mention, skill – they can bring to a team when they’re missing their usual top guys. Enter J.R. Smith and the New York Knicks.
Last night the Knicks were missing their top guy, Carmelo Anthony, who hyperextended his knee during the Knicks’ Christmas day loss to the Lakers. In that same Lakers loss, Raymond Felton seemed to have hurt his hand, again, and it appears he broke a finger, and is expected to be out four to six weeks. With Felton and ‘Melo out, J.R. Smith needed to be the guy and because he already feels that way about himself, it worked out… at least last night.
But it took more than Smith’s otherworldly talent and self-assurance for the Knicks to survive their trip to Phoenix. Jason Kidd also needed to step up, as he’s been doing throughout the Knicks hot start this season. Kidd only played a little over 30 minutes, but he still found time to dish eight assists, and drain five three-pointers on his way to a season-high 23 points and post a team-best plus-13 for the game. But even with Kidd’s anachronistic play like his early-aught incarnation with a jump shot, the Knicks still needed J.R. Smith.
After New York used a big second quarter to take a 10-point lead into the half, and after extending that lead to 15 in the third period, the Suns came back to tie the score before the start of the fourth. The Knicks needed someone, anyone, to take on the Carmelo role and score some buckets. Smith was happy to oblige.
With under 20 seconds to play and the Knicks down two, their offense wasn’t handling the Suns’ kinetic defense very well. So they eventually settled on a spread floor with Smith taking the ball at the top of the key. He only had a few seconds left on the shot clock when he got the ball, but that’s fine for him. He bumped his way to the free throw line with P.J. Tucker all over him. But for every fadeaway Smith takes with 15 seconds still on the shot clock, he also takes one with the game on the line, and that’s not such a bad position for the Knicks as we’ve seen this month. He rose, fading back towards his right side, and drilled a 20-footer with 10 seconds left to tie the score at 97. It set the stage for even more Smith heroics.