Efficient J.R. Smith Leads Streaking Knicks
Prior to the New York Knicks’ victory over the Boston Celtics on Sunday night, which ran New York’s winning streak to eight straight, head coach Mike Woodson was asked about J.R. Smith’s recent turnaround and improved play. Woodson smiled and quipped, “I’ve been screaming at him a lot about trying to get to the free throw line and mixing his game up, he’s finally turned the corner.”
Jokes aside, the recent offensive aggressiveness and dramatic improvement from Smith has been startling, and incredibly impressive. The Knicks’ enigmatic sixth man had shown flashes of brilliance at times earlier this season, but he’d also been plagued by bouts of maddening inconsistency. This roller-coaster ride was fully expected due to the fact that Smith has been so heavily reliant on three-point attempts and contested step-back jumpers throughout his nine-year NBA career.
However, over the last three weeks, Smith has been consistently aggressive. He’s relentlessly attacking the basket rather than settling for perimeter jumpers.
Consider these statistics to help put Smith’s recent play in proper context: Smith played 35 games for the Knicks last season after signing with New York in mid-February and attempted a total of 55 free throws over the course of the 2011-12 season. In contrast, over the Knicks’ last 10 games, Smith has attempted 89 free throws. Yes, he has gotten to the line 34 more times in 25 fewer games.
Over this 10-game stretch, dating back to March 14, Smith is tied with Kevin Durant for the most free throw attempts in the entire league.
This is truly uncharted territory for a player that has always epitomized the term “chucker.” Prior to mid-March of this year, Smith had never attempted five or more free throws in five straight games (four games in a row had been his career-high). Yet, after getting to the line 10 more times on Sunday night, he has now tallied at least five free throw attempts in 10 consecutive contests.
During this current 10-game span, Smith is shooting over 48 percent from the floor and has scored 250 points on just 168 field goal attempts. Those numbers compare favorably with even the league’s most efficient scorers.
Smith certainly hasn’t eliminated the three-pointer from his arsenal (he averaged 6.3 three-point attempts in March), he’s just been more selective. In addition, he has drastically reduced the amount of long two-pointers he’s taking. Smith is either taking threes or getting to basket, which typically results in a dunk, lay-up or trip to the charity stripe.
In March, Smith was one of just five NBA players who knocked down at least 20 three-pointers as well as 80 free throws. The other four members of that exclusive club: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, James Harden and Kevin Durant.
And, of course, Smith has done all of his damage off of the bench. During this Knicks’ win streak, Smith became the first player with four 30-point games off the bench in the same month since Ricky Pierce had four such games for Milwaukee in November of 1990. Smith is also the first player in more than 20 years to score 30 or more points in three straight games as a reserve.
Still, the most important aspect of Smith’s stellar play has been its positive impact on the Knicks’ record. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Smith scored an even 200 points over the Knicks’ eight-game winning streak, joining Willis Reed, Patrick Ewing and Amar’e Stoudemire as players who have scored that many points over eight straight Knicks wins.
Smith is a true “X-factor” for New York. When he is efficient and effective on the offensive end, it is often a fantastic barometer for his team’s success. Since signing with New York last season, the Knicks are a sparkling 28-4 in games in which Smith shoots 50 percent or better from the field.
It should also be noted that Smith’s improved play is not limited solely to offense. Coach Woodson has frequently praised the improvement in his all-around game this season. Even when his shot isn’t dropping, Smith has been far more focused defensively on a nightly basis.
“He’s playing at such a high level, but his game is well-rounded now,” Woodson explained. “He’s rebounding, he’s defending and he’s passing the ball… His game has been complete and it’s really helped us tremendously. When you’ve got two guys that can get to the free throw line and put pressure on teams that way, it really helps. It takes some of the slack off always having to make jump shots, or one-on-one plays over the top of somebody.”
Coming into this season, Smith had never averaged more than 4.1 rebounds per contest, but is pulling down 5.2 rebounds a night in 2012-13. He’s also dishing out a career-best 2.8 assists per game. He is one of just six players this season averaging at least 17 points, five rebounds and 1.3 steals (Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George and Rudy Gay are the other five).
On Monday, Smith was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week, the first time he’s ever earned that honor.
The question now becomes: Can Smith keep it up?
It remains to be seen if he’ll continue playing efficiently or if he’ll revert to his old habit of settling for ill-advised jumpers. With Smith playing aggressively, yet unselfishly and under-control, New York can compete with the NBA’s best teams. When Smith is at his inefficient worst, they have a very difficult time scoring enough to hang with the rest of the league’s elite.
Is this current stretch an anomaly and just a blip on the radar or are we witnessing the initial stages of something more permanent? To a certain extent, the Knicks’ playoff hopes may be determined by the answer.