Now that it’s May and the weather is mercifully warming up in Northeast Ohio, J.R. Smith is able to get back to his off-the-court sanctuary: the golf course.
It’s a place that Smith says helps him refocus while simultaneously taking his mind off the game of basketball during the playoff grind.
“The weather starts getting nice, the grass starts growing,” the Cavaliers shooting guard said following the team’s film session on Friday. “I get to play golf, I get to take my mind off basketball for a second and just remember why I’m here. Just to have fun and take it back to when I was a little kid just dying to be in this position.”
Both Smith and the Cavs have experienced a playoff resurgence of sorts. The 2017-18 season was one of Smith’s worst since his first years in the league. He averaged just 8.3 points and struggled on the defensive end, an area in recent years where he has hung his hat. He lost his starting spot. He threw soup at assistant coach Damon Jones, earning himself a one-game suspension. It appeared as if the “when in doubt, shoot” era of Smith in Cleveland may have come and gone.
But through nine playoff games, Smith seems to be back to his usual self. He’s averaging 10.6 points on 38.6 shooting from beyond the three-point arc. Those numbers are even better against the Raptors, as he’s put up 20 and 15 points through the first two Cavs’ wins.
On the defensive side of the floor, the Cavs are once again trusting Smith with the most important matchups. Through seven games against Indiana he guarded Victor Oladipo. Now through two games against Toronto, he’s drawn the primary assignment of picking up DeMar DeRozan.
Through two games against the Raptors, Smith has guarded DeRozan for a team-high 91 possessions. DeRozan has scored just 28 points during that time. For reference, during the regular season, he averaged 23 a game. DeRozan’s output over the first two games of the series, combined with Smith’s own improving offensive numbers are a remarkable testament to just how focused he is.
“He’s locked in,” head coach Tyronn Lue said. “I think we always give J.R. one assignment in the playoffs, and every year he has the toughest matchup. And I think having Oladipo last series, having DeRozan this series, he really locks in defensively knowing what we want from him. But offensively, just keeping it simple, taking his shots or straight line drives when they give it to him. And he’s been shooting the ball extremely well.”
Smith may be keeping it simple, but he also credits George Hill’s return and the way LeBron James has been playing with opening things up for the Cavs’ role players. In Game 2, James put up 43 points and dished out 14 assists, tying a career-high. James is currently averaging nine assists per game during the playoffs.
“A lot of credit to Bron for just facilitating and finding guys,” Smith said. “George Hill’s coming back from last series and pretty much picking up stride and getting comfortable with our offense. So when that happens we’re going to be a tough team to guard throughout the playoffs, because we’ve got guys that can shoot all over the court on top of guys attacking the basket.”
Smith finding his rhythm in the postseason has been a huge plus for the Cavs, and it’s no coincidence that as he’s found his rhythm on offense the Cavs have taken a 2-0 series lead against the top-seeded team in the East. While James’ ability to dissect the Raptors defense opens the offense up for shooters, Smith hitting shots in turn opens up things for James to drive and for Kevin Love in the post.
He is also one of only four guys that remain from the 2016 championship team, and knowing what it takes to be successful in the playoffs is part of the reason that Lue has never lost faith in him throughout the rough season.
“He understands what’s at hand as far as trying to win a championship,” Lue said. “He’s always pretty locked in in the playoffs and we give him those assignments with DeRozan, and Oladipo, and last year Paul George. So he likes that, he likes taking on that challenge.”
Smith not only likes the challenge, he thrives in it. And with a 2-0 series lead, he will look to keep his above par play on the court going— but for the rest of Friday, he’s going to try and keep things under par on the golf course.
“We haven’t really had that many nice days man,” he said, “so I’m going to take advantage today, I might play 27 (holes) today.”