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2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers exit interview: The harsh realities of J.R. Smith’s season

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Is the “when in doubt shoot” era of Smith in Cleveland over?

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

When fans look back on J.R. Smith’s 2017-18 season, it will likely be remembered for two things: throwing soup, and his crucial mistake in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

The harsh reality of the season for Smith is that his antics were arguably far more prevalent than anything positive he did on the court. And while he had a few highlights, Smith’s numbers overall took a dive when compared to the previous three.

So is the “when in doubt shoot era” of J.R. Smith in Cleveland over? At least this season, it certainly seemed so.

For the year, Smith averaged just three makes and 7.4 shot attempts per game and 1.8 makes from beyond the arc. His 8.3 points per game average was his lowest since the 2005-06 season, and all of those stats are his lowest since arriving to Cleveland in the 2014-15 season.

Smith’s year began with him being relegated to the bench for the first three games of the season so that Dwyane Wade could join the starting lineup. In those games, Smith averaged just 6.3 points and recorded no steals — not great for a guy who has become a key defensive presence for the Cavs on the perimeter. After those three games though, Smith was put back into the starting lineup after Wade went to Tyronn Lue and told him he would prefer to come off the bench.

The move was one that obviously and outwardly bothered Smith, and was also one that he discussed on the “Road Trippin’” podcast, saying, “Honestly, I was hurt man … I was really emotionally drained at that point.”

Being emotionally drained certainly showed. Even though he was put back into the starting rotation, Smith was hardly himself. He didn’t really hit a decent stretch of games until Nov. 7, when he put up 20 points against Milwaukee. He followed that up with a 13-point performance against Houston and a 17-point performance against New York. But overall, it’s hard to wonder if that initial snub didn’t play a role in what was a sub-par year for the sharp-shooter.

Smith stayed in the starting lineup until early March, which is when things started to get silly. On March 1, he was given a one-game suspension by the team after throwing soup at assistant coach Damon Jones. Believe it or not, he kept his starting position for five games once he returned — but after the Cavs went 2-3 over that stretch, he was relegated back to a bench role and remained there until Game 2 of the playoffs against Indiana.

And while he did have some good moments in the playoffs, his postseason will be remembered more than anything for his Game 1 blunder in the Finals that cost the Cavs a chance to steal a game on the road against Golden State.

With 4.7 seconds remaining, George Hill missed what would have been the go-ahead free throw for Cleveland. While Smith grabbed an improbable offensive rebound, he dribbled out the clock, and appeared to tell LeBron James on the court that he thought the Cavaliers were ahead.

That same night, he also gave up a ridiculous Hail Mary shot to Stephen Curry at the halftime buzzer, committing perhaps the two biggest mental mistakes of the game.

Immediately following the loss, Smith told reporters he did in fact know the score, but a few days later at practice walked that statement back, saying, “I can’t say I was sure of anything at that point.”

With that being said, Smith did still have some high points through the mistakes and mental lapses. As far as the regular season goes, his best game was Jan. 26 against Indiana, when he had a season-high 23 points and a season-high four steals. The night before the trade deadline, he dropped 20 points in the Cavs’ buzzer-beating win over Minnesota.

Prior to his Finals debacle, Smith proved effective for most of the playoffs. He helped to limit the damage that Victor Oladipo caused in the opening round, and also had 11 points and four rebounds in a critical Game 7. Against Toronto, he basically took DeMar DeRozan out of the series and was also a threat offensively, scoring 20 points in Game 1 of that series and dropping 15 in both Games 2 and 4. Against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, while he struggled to make an impact on the road, in yet another Game 7 he managed 12 points and four rebounds, seemingly finding his rhythm.

But there’s a reason we’re talking about these highlights at the end of the article instead of leading with them. The mental lapses and mistakes Smith made were ultimately a lot more prominent.

The thing about Smith is, scoring wise he is always going to hit stretches when he is streaky. But this year, as opposed to years past, Smith’s antics played more of a role and bled into his on-the-court performances. In the end, fair or not, Smith’s 2017-18 season is likely going to be defined by his mistakes more than anything he did right.