The Cleveland Cavaliers have morphed during the playoffs offensively. From the regular season's discombobulated and isolation-heavy offense, a new approach started seemingly overnight, as the Cavs began moving the ball at a frenetic pace, and they started bombing away from three. The Cavs have been a three-point happy team all along, shooting 29.6 threes per game in the regular season, good for third in the league. However, that number has exploded in the playoffs, as they have shot an astounding 36.3 threes per game, five more than any other playoff team. More importantly, they're also lapping the rest of the league in three-point percentage, hitting a neck-breaking 46.2 percent clip from beyond the arc.
Several players have been instrumental in the shift to being perhaps the best archery team in playoff history. Kyrie Irving's rediscovery of his three-point shot has been huge, as has Kevin Love's performance as a spot-up weapon. Channing Frye's 27-point game and ridiculous 57.1 playoff shooting percentage also has garnered plenty of attention. But there's one other guy who has been huge for the Cavs' overall success this season, and probably is the biggest X-factor for Cleveland headed into potential matchups with the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors. Let's discuss, for a moment, the playoff performance of Earl Smith III.
J.R. Smith had been the Cavs' most consistently productive three-point shooter all season, hitting 40 percent on 6.6 attempts per game. As always with J.R., there was concern that things would go south, as they always seem to do for Smith when he has a stretch of productive play. However, he's been even better in the playoffs - He's shooting 50.8 percent from three on 7.6 attempts per game, placing him fourth on the team in points per game with 12.3, and helping him post the third-best plus/minus on the team, ahead of Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, and Matthew Dellavedova at +8.3.
What makes Smith so key for the Cavs is that he gets his threes in every way imaginable. He's more than just a spot-up shooter, although he's pretty elite at that, hitting 55.6 percent on catch-and-shoot looks in the playoffs. He's also been hitting 40 percent on pull-up looks, those shots that made everyone cringe when he was a New York Knick. And it doesn't matter how he gets them or how he's defended. He's hit 50 percent early in the shot clock. He's hit 56.5 percent with less than seven seconds left in the shot clock. He's at 54.3 percent with no dribbles, and 50 percent with more than three dribbles. He's at 41.7 percent on wide-open threes, and an absurd 60.9 percent with a defender within 2-4 feet. If you need visual, look at how many different ways Smith got looks in Game 2's barrage against the Atlanta Hawks:
Smith's playoffs have been the pinnacle of Smith's Cavs tenure, where he has seemingly matured now that he's hit the age mark of 30. He's developed into an all-around outside shooting threat who is obsessed with getting threes from all angles and against all comers, and that's before we even get to his passing (3.25 assist-to-turnover ratio in the playoffs), and his defense (The Cavs are 3.2 points/100 possessions better defensively with J.R. on the floor, even if he struggled with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for stretches). Smith has been having his best playoff performance of his career, even better than last year, when he was a de facto second scorer in the NBA Finals. And he'll continue to have a huge impact, regardless of who the Cavs play in the next round.
If it's the Raptors, Smith will be tasked with defending Demar DeRozan and Cory Joseph for stretches, and will be helping to spread the floor so the Cavs can attack the Raptors' depleted frontcourt in the pick-and-roll. The Heat have thrived on attacking Bismack Biyombo and then feasting on open shots at the rim because Biyombo can't recover, and their help defenders can't leave Jeremy Richardson and Joe Johnson on the perimeter. The Cavs will definitely attempt this same tactic, and it will pay huge dividends for LeBron James and Smith if DeRozan and Terrence Ross can't leave the 51 percent three-point shooter wide open.
He'd be even more important against the Heat, where he will be defending Dwyane Wade, and can create a "pick-your-poison" dilemma for Miami as they decide where to attempt to hide Wade and Goran Dragic. If Smith is making either work on the defensive end by running around screens and attacking them off the dribble with pull-ups, that's going to tax them, and make it harder for the Heat's more plodding offense to keep up with the Cavs' scoring.
While the success of the Big Three and the team-wide success on three-point shooting have been the big talking points for the Cavs in these playoffs, Smith deserves plenty of credit. With him playing well, the Cavs have three players who can hurt you on and off the ball around LeBron James, and that makes this team nearly impossible to defend. After all of the hand-wringing about his consistency when the Cavs traded for him, he's continued to deliver solid play night in and night out, and he'll continue to be important down the stretch for Cleveland. And if you're concerned about him regressing to the mean soon because of his track record? That's even more reason to appreciate him playing at his best.