NBA Finals, Game 1: It gets late early for J.R. Smith

During Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals, longtime NBA reporter David Aldridge tweeted the following:

Last year, that player for the San Antonio Spurs was Boris Diaw, a player who breaks a lot of the rules with his style of play and his rather (shall we say?) curvy physique.

In 2013, that player for the Miami Heat was Birdman, Birdman! Chris Andersen gave Miami valuable low-post minutes and enough of an interior presence to make the Heat reasonably competent in that facet of basketball.

In 2012, the Heat watched Mike Miller go off in an absurd way, helping to nail down LeBron James’s first NBA title without needing to go back to Oklahoma City for what would have been a very tough Game 6 situation.

In 2011, Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea, two fiery competitors, helped Dirk Nowitzki get his elusive crown. You can see the merits of Mr. Aldridge’s tweet. There’s a considerable amount of substance in it.

As we return to 2015, then, it’s pretty clear that after only one game of the Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors, this much is clear: J.R. Smith has to emerge as a force for the Cavs in this series.

Let’s say for the sake of debate that Kyrie Irving is able to get healthy, though he’s going in for an MRI and left Oracle Arena on crutches late Thursday night after talking to his dad, his agent, and Cleveland general manager David Griffin. (In other words, you wouldn’t want to put much stock in the possibility that Kyrie’s going to be anywhere near as healthy as he was for most of Game 1… if he even plays at all in Game 2.)

Even if Kyrie is able to play with a reasonable degree of effectiveness, Golden State coach Steve Kerr has already thrown down his marker in this series. He made the conscious choice to do what many coaches have done against teams with transcendent generational superstars: Kerr allowed that superstar to get his points, but with the tradeoff of containing most of the other players on the floor. In Game 1, LeBron James scored 44 points, and Kyrie 23, for 67 of the team’s 100 points. Timofey Mozgov scored 16, leaving a total of just 17 for everyone else.

Wrapped inside this larger focus from the Warriors was an intent to maintain good coverage on the Cavaliers’ role-player shooters, the two primary examples being Iman Shumpert and Smith, the pair of refugees from the New York Knicks who have made such a difference for the Cavs this spring.

Against Chicago and Atlanta in the Eastern Conference playoffs, Smith was the most important role player for the Cavs other than Tristan Thompson. His late three-point-shooting barrage in Game 4 of the Chicago series is a central reason the Cavs are here. Shumpert has grown in confidence as the playoffs have moved along. His jump shot held up in the cauldron of the playoffs, and his perimeter defense has been outstanding.

It’s true that in Game 1, Irving — with the benefit of a full week of rest — was able to be a lot more explosive and (accordingly) impactful at both ends of the floor. As the series moves forward, though, the grind of regular competition is going to place more pressure on Cleveland’s stars. Smith and Shumpert have to be there, and since J.R. is the one who will put up more shots per game, his stroke needs to round into form if Cleveland is going to win its first NBA title.

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One very specific statistic casts a long shadow over Cleveland’s overtime loss in Game 1: In 29 post-halftime minutes — the third and fourth quarters plus overtime — the Cavs made two 3-pointers. That’s it. Kerr’s willingness to allow LeBron to operate one-on-one in exchange for better coverage on other players (with LeBron making a skip pass or a kickout) certainly reduced the extent to which Golden State defenders had to scramble on double-teams or other maneuvers. This played no small part in Cleveland hitting just 29 percent of its threes (9 of 31). Shumpert hit two threes in the second quarter to halt a Golden State rally, but those were the only threes he hit all night. Smith was a more conspicuous shooter in Game 1, attempting 10 of his 13 shots behind the 3-point arc. He made only three, none of them after halftime.

In the final four minutes of regulation time, Cleveland made only one field goal, a three by LeBron in which Golden State allowed King James to dribble backwards and get a free shooting hand after he dribbled within 18 feet of the basket. With just one other shooter down the stretch, Cleveland would have had enough offense to get to the finish line first and immediately redraw the contours of this series.

In previous rounds against Eastern Conference teams, Smith had filled this role to perfection. In Oakland on Thursday, he flamed out, badly missing a three in the final four minutes of regulation, and then going 0 for 3 in overtime, as the Cavs’ offense evaporated.

It’s true that Cleveland’s bigs, Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson, handily won their matchups in the paint against Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green. Continuing to win those matchups will keep Cleveland competitive with Golden State. However, there’s a difference between being competitive and winning for the Cavs — it’s the three-point shooting they received in meaningful moments against the Bulls and Hawks.

That didn’t appear in Game 1 against the Warriors. It must resurface in Game 2 on Sunday.

Who shot J.R.? That’s the wrong question.

Will J.R. shoot Cleveland into a tied series heading to Ohio for Game 3? That’s a much more important query right now.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |

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