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.
The first game-winner, if you don’t remember, was against the lowly Charlotte Bobcats back on December 5. With time again running down, and with Smith dribbling with his left hand, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – an excellent rookie defender – did everything in his power to make things impossible for Smith to get a shot off. But J.R. Smith is the perfect player to make the ridiculous seem sane, and he hit a fadeaway from the left side to give the Knicks a 100-98 victory. Possibly no other player in the league is more adept at these off-balance prayers, and Smith hit one again last night.
Just before the last play of the game as the Knicks sat on the sidelines, Smith could be seen rolling the ball through his fingers. Viewers could almost see him imagining himself taking the last shot while Mike Woodson diagrammed a play on the whiteboard. Smith’s fading floater over P.J. Tucker from the left side beat the Phoenix Suns as time expired last night, 99-97. His game-winner was also the perfect embodiment of Smith’s ability to drain a bending, twisting, gymnastic shot with a defender draped all over him. The skill and strength required, not to mention the irrational belief in yourself, to hit shots like this are best embodied by J.R. Smith. And it’s a player like him that can often be the difference among title contenders. It was Smith’s second game-winning shot of December, and he didn’t hesitate. Who among the league’s elite has a player like that coming off their bench?
Knicks fans are accustomed to at least one or two questionable shots from Smith every game. However, gone are many of his defensive lapses, or the griping to the press corps about his spot coming off the bench. He’s playing his butt off for Woodson, and he’s being rewarded for that hard work. But the man is so talented and so convinced of his own brilliance, you’re going to get a couple, unnecessarily tricky shots when the better play is to hit an open man. I’m pretty sure two crazy December game-winners have Knicks fans and Knicks players and coaches willing to forgive Smith for the occasional erratic shot. That same sublime confidence often translates into what we all saw last night.
Maybe it’s time we all start believing in Smith as much as he believes in himself. So far for New York this season, Smith’s ability to hit the impossible bucket has been the difference between a win and a loss on two different occasions. And we’re not even in January yet.
J.R. Smith’s tumultuous career might be an enigma wrapped inside a riddle, but try and imagine another player you’d rather have with the ball as the clock is winding down.
Is Smith one of the top 10 one-on-one players in the NBA?
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