Kyrie Irving is telling media members that he may be at 30 or 40 percent as he goes through a foot sprain and left knee tendinitis. He worked through a hip issue in the series with the Boston Celtics. Kevin Love is long gone after Kelly Olynyk ended his season. LeBron James, left on an island in which he is the only creator, is in the midst of his least efficient stretch of basketball in years. He's surrounded by non-shooters and shot blockers and energy workmen.
The defense, the intensity, has remained. The devastatingly effective offense evident from the second half of the regular season is but a memory.
That offense, built primarily on Pick and Roll actions with dead-eye three point shooters, was a sight to behold. It involved defenses choosing between giving up a Kevin Love three point attempt or a Tristan Thompson alley-hoop slam. Or a LeBron James drive without help. Or a second pass from Love to J.R. Smith or Kyrie Irving. It was simple, yes. It also involved defenses making tough choices, over and over and over again.
Kevin Love's minutes have been replaced by Tristan Thompson and Kendrick Perkins and James Jones. James Jones was all but forgotten in Miami. Perkins is a major liability. The consistent shooting from the perimeter, next level passing, and defensive rebounding leading to transition offense that Love provides is gone. It's a devastating blow.
Only one member of the Cavs starting five is fully healthy and can provide a bit of the shooting the Cavs so desperately need with Love and Irving out or hurting. That's J.R. Smith. He's actually not even a member of the starting five after Iman Shumpert performed admirably in his stead following Smith's suspension. But his opportunity has never been greater. The Cavs' need for his services has never been more urgent.
In Games 1 and 2, Shumpert was 8-17 from three point range. A career 34% shooter from distance, he can't be relied upon to do that. In Games 3 and 4, Shumpert regressed to 23% from three point range. These sample sizes are tiny, and shooting involves a ton of variance. The Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors are currently finding that out the hard way with their respective series.
Theoretically though, Smith is a three point option that opposing teams must respect. He has a track record of igniting. He did it in Game 4, scoring 11 points in the fourth quarter. He did it in Game 3, hitting a game-tying three pointer before Derrick Rose's heroics. Smith is known for lacking reliability in just about all aspects of life. He's been absent for his team due to suspension. He got a deserved technical in Game 4 after losing his cool, briefly, and pushing Mike Dunleavy.
After LeBron James, Smith is now the most skilled player the Cavaliers have offensively with any semblance of health. He still shouldn't be creating much off the dribble. In fact, dribbling in general should still be discouraged. But running off screens, catch and shoot opportunities need to be there. He alone has the ability to do this:
His time with LeBron James needs to be maximized. With James on the court, Smith has a true shooting rate of 61.2 during the regular season. Without James on the court, that rate goes all the way down 49.9. That high mark with James is largely buttressed by 42% three point shooting on five attempts in just 23 minutes of action. Without a healthy Irving and Love to soak up the attention of defenses, it's impossible to ask for that success to continue. But it does provide a glimpse of what Smith can offer the Cavs offense. If they want to challenge for a spot in the NBA Finals, he may have to.
David Blatt has to turn to Smith. In the playoffs as a whole, Smith is averaging under 27 minutes. It makes sense. Smith has been in foul trouble, he's received technical fouls, he's been suspended. He's been a poster boy of NBA under-achieving for some time now. It's been deserved. He's a great shooter gifted with extreme athleticism. He's admitted he has spent too much time focused on the nightlife, and not enough time working. The Cavaliers are starved for shooting, and there's no better option for Cleveland to turn to.
This could be his moment. He could be the difference. The Cavs need him.
Stats courtesy of nba.com/stats