J.R. Smith nearly changed the whole complexion of the NBA Finals in Game 1 on Thursday. It was early in the first half, and Smith was trying his damnedest to make an impact. Because of his ongoing shooting struggles, he was redirecting all that energy to the defensive end, so when he saw a chance to go for a steal off a lazy pass to Klay Thompson, he went for it.
It didn’t work out in his favor, and it ended up being a scary moment for Warriors fans as Thompson doubled over in pain after Smith took his legs out from under him. But despite the reaction from the crowd at Oracle, it wasn’t a dirty or reckless play. He simply slipped. His over-zealousness got the best of him. He can be forgiven for that.
But after that initial blunder, in which he failed to get the steal, committed a foul, and nearly caused a catastrophic injury to a star player, you think he would’ve reconsidered that tactic the next time around. But we’re talking about J.R. Smith here, so with time ticking down in the first half, he saw another opportunity to gamble for a steal, seized that opportunity, grossly miscalculated yet again, and in the process left Steph Curry wide open for a three-pointer to tie it at the buzzer in a game where absolutely every possession matters.
And yet, amazingly enough, he wasn’t done. Not by a long shot. We’ve all seen it a million times by now. It’s all anyone could talk about on Friday. Every sports media outlet has been playing it on an endless loop, the now iconic image of Smith grabbing an offensive rebound with the game tied only to bolt out to the three-point line as time was expiring instead of getting up a potential game-winning and perhaps history-altering shot.
We’ll be watching it for years to come. We’ll be telling our grandkids about it. Depending on the outcome of this series, it may very well go down as the worst mental lapse in basketball history.
And because we live in the Information Age, we not only have a long collective memory; it’s also a pristinely documented one. Smith, of course, has a notorious reputation for boneheaded plays, a long and colorful resume of bloopers and gaffes and well-deserved Shaqtin-a-Fool nominations. So it came as no surprise to learn he’s made this exact mistake before. Rewind to January of 2014 when he was still a member of the New York Knicks and this happened.
Smith actually has a history of forgetting the score in crucial moments and costing his team a win, which I would venture to guess is something that no NBA player wants to have a history of doing. I know what some of you are thinking: If George Hill hadn’t missed that free throw, etc.
I understand that argument, but what J.R. did is exponentially worse. Hill would’ve been forgiven for missing that free throw. I also understand that there were plenty of other mitigating factors, with respect to some questionable calls in the second half, that could’ve swayed the game one way or the other.
But Smith might never live this down, not among Cavs fans, not among his teammates, and especially not among LeBron James, whose reaction of panic, disbelief, and finally eternal sadness spawned what will surely end up as the greatest and most tragic sports meme of the year, maybe of the decade, possibly of all time.
So how does anyone — let alone Smith — move on from here? Is it even possible?
In fact, Smith is just about the only person who could bounce back from something like this, precisely because he is J.R. Smith, dammit. We’re talking about the Crown Prince of Irrational Confidence here. Mental gymnastics are kind of his thing. His outright denial that he didn’t know the score, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, is a good place to start. Also, here is a thing he said on Saturday, which shows that he is completely fine being put into these types of situations because he knows he can recover.
Remember that he’s the type of guy who insists he shoots better with a hand in his face. And never before has he had a hand this monstrous and hairy-knuckled trying to keep him from shooting his shot. It is perhaps the Hand of God himself.
So J.R. needs to be the most J.R. he’s ever been. Like it or not, the Cavs need it too. When it comes to J.R., they need both sides of the coin, the darkness and the light, because everything they do from here is psychological. They proved in Game 1 that they can compete with the Warriors. Whether they still believe it is another question entirely.