Before Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors came to its dramatic three-part conclusion with The Block by LeBron James, The Shot by Kyrie Irving and The Stop by Kevin Love, there was The Eight by JR Smith.
With the Cavs coming out of halftime trailing the Warriors by seven points on Golden State’s home court, Smith scored eight points on 3-for-3 shooting in the first two minutes and 26 seconds of the third quarter to draw Cleveland within two. It dashed the Dubs’ hopes of breaking the game open and sprinting towards the title as they did in the deciding Game 6 of the 2015 Finals. And it cemented Smith’s place in in Cleveland sports lore as one of the heroes who helped cease a 52-year championship drought.
Fast forward less than two years later and so much is different for Smith and his teammates.
The most dramatic domino of change was Irving being traded to the Boston Celtics in the offseason, of course, but there have been multiple moves that have totally reshaped the roster since June 2016 to the point where the Cavs are hardly recognizable anymore.
“It’s crazy,” Smith told ESPN after Cleveland’s 121-99 rout of the Celtics on Sunday. “We were on the plane on the way (to Boston) and I just started looking around and only really (four) seats are still the same from when we, like you said, won the championship … I just told the guys, ‘Man, this is crazy. We really like, got a whole new, a whole new team.’ And I looked across and Bron was just shaking his head like, ‘Yeah, yeah, but we got a f—ing squad too.'”
James, Love, Tristan Thompson and Smith — the four holdovers from the title team — received a four-man infusion of talent last week when the Cavs acquired George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.
Many assumed that the addition of Hood — a sleek, 6-foot-8 shooting guard — meant that Smith and his unreliable 39.4 percent from the field and 36.7 percent 3-point accuracy this season would be headed to the bench.
However, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue intends to stick with Smith, just as he’s done ever since he plugged him back into the first unit following a brief experiment with Dwyane Wade to begin the year.
“JR’s done a lot for us,” Lue said Monday. “If it wasn’t for JR in ’16 making those eight straight points coming out in the third quarter, we don’t win the championship. People saying, ‘Quit on JR, give up on JR.’ It’s not right. And he gives us effort and energy every night. Sometimes your shot is going to come and go, that’s just part of the game. For the most part, his effort is there every night. That’s why I wanted to stick with JR and I don’t want to lose JR. Make sure keep him in good spirits, going in the right direction. He’s big for us. When he’s making shots, when he’s being aggressive, our team is a whole different team.”
Smith’s shot is with him as of late. He’s hit three 3s or more in six of the Cavs’ last nine games. And in those games when Smith was clicking — including his 15-point performance against the Celtics when he went 6-for-7 from the floor (3-for-4 from 3) — Cleveland is 4-2.
Just like Smith came out gunning in the second half of Game 7 facing elimination against the Warriors, the 14-year veteran’s season took a turn for the better this year when he went for broke with the trade deadline approaching.
“It was, ‘You know what? The hell with it. If I’m going to get traded, I’m just going to go out playing the way I know how to play,'” Smith told ESPN.
He sweat out last Thursday. The $14.7 million he’ll be owed next year as a 33-year-old followed by the $15.6 million he’s on the books for in 2019-20 when he’ll be 34 made his contract difficult to move, of course. But with Cleveland completing wholesale changes, Smith was uneasy.
“My name was being thrown around a lot out there so it was nerve-wracking for sure,” Smith said. “When you see six guys getting traded and there’s still more than an hour to the trade deadline, there’s no telling what can happen.”
He survived the deadline and he’ll remain in Cleveland — a place he calls a “perfect situation” for his family, even when the basketball is sometimes far from perfect. Last week after a home game, Smith and his wife, Jewel, popped a pink balloon held by James’ wife, Savannah, which contained pink confetti in a gender reveal captured for social media. The Smiths, who have three daughters already, are adding a fourth.
Smith is returning to his, “When in doubt, shoot,” credo on the court — a significant shift in confidence from a guy who was tempted to bench himself earlier in the season.
“There were times when I wanted to go to (Lue) and be like, ‘Listen, man, I’m not playing well. Why not take me out?'” said Smith, who has scored three points or fewer in a game 14 times this season. “Fortunately, I didn’t and just stuck with it. I’ve known T-Lue since my rookie year. Our relationship is based on communication — how he communicates with me, how I communicate with him. He’s been really consistent at that.”
When Love returns from a broken left hand injury, the Cavs will have all four of their remaining championship pieces back together in the starting lineup to embark on another postseason run.
“When we met in the beginning of the year, we knew that we had to be the leaders of this team because we have won here, but spent the most time here, too. And trying to get back to four consecutive Finals, we know that our word means a lot here,” Love told ESPN. “But it is wild to look and see … It’s only us four now. It’s crazy. But you see it’s a business and we’re trying to win and it’s us four.”
As vital as Smith’s outside stroke was against the Celtics, his play in the first quarter when he blew by Irving off the dribble and then threw down a one-handed dunk all over the Celtics’ 6-foot-10, 260-pound big man Aron Baynes set the tone for what turned out to be a transformative day for the Cavs’ franchise.
“I was trying to get to the basket, really get to my floater and once I seen how open the lane was I figured, ‘The hell with it, why not?'” Smith said. “Show the new guys what I’ve got.”
Or, as James described the dunk: “JR gave us something tonight to let us know that he’s still here.”
Who is not there with the Cavs any more following last week’s trade deadline — Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye and Derrick Rose — are also a significant part of Smith’s story.
When Smith was informed about former Cavs guard Dahntay Jones’ tweet during the Cleveland-Boston game that read, “The difference between selfish and selfless players. Take notice,” a few of his teammates perked up.
“You said Dahntay?” Thompson asked, before adding an approving, “Yeahhhh.”
Kyle Korver also asked the reporter to repeat Jones’ tweet.
“What’d he say?” Korver queried before looking down and smiling to himself as he sat as his locker and tied his shoes after hearing the message.
“I mean, that was my team,” Smith said of the Cavs group pre-trade deadline. “They still were my teammates. I had an impact on them as a player and as a person. I’m not going to bad mouth anybody. It’s just the fit wasn’t right. There’s nothing wrong with that. Their fit was perfect here in Boston and to come to a team like this where we don’t run as many plays and are more of a freelance, get-up-and-down-the-court-and-play (team). No knock against them. I was in places that I didn’t fit. It works out like that.”
Smith’s fit looks mighty good right now — a sturdy wing defender on one end, and a shot-sure flame thrower on the other.
“When he is a knockdown shooter, we’re a completely different team,” Love said. “When he’s on, that ball has so much energy and it picks up the rest of us.”
Smith also wants to pick up the team off the court and help establish the bonds that made that 2016 team unbreakable.
“We do a lot of stuff together off the court,” Smith said. “Just talking to Jordan (Clarkson), he was like, ‘Everyone went their separate ways whenever we did stuff off the court in L.A.’ We’re a team on and off.”
A team whose upward trajectory now mirrors the direction Smith’s season is going personally.
“I mean, with the new guys coming in and still having I would say somewhat the core of what we’ve had the last three years, the sun is definitely starting to come out in Cleveland for sure,” Smith said. “We’ve just got to stay with it.”