J.R. Smith arrived in Cleveland as an afterthought in the Cavaliers’ angling for Iman Shumpert, a necessary contract evil to complete the trade. In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks, he was anything but.
Smith dropped 28 points to lead Cleveland, nailing a team playoff-record eight three-pointers and helping lead the Cavs past the Hawks 97-89 to capture a crucial first game on the road in Atlanta.
On a night where Kyrie Irving was ineffective again due to injury and LeBron James tweaked an old ankle injury during the second half, Smith’s performance was like deliverance for Cleveland. Late in the third quarter, with their lead at just two points, JR fully morphed into his “JR Swish” nickname, nailing five three-pointers in about a five-and-a-half minute stretch, and suddenly, the Cavaliers’ lead was 18 points with a little less than 10 minutes to go in the game.
It was honestly kind of insane. Smith was nailing threes off step-back moves and crossovers, making shots at the type of ridiculous clip that almost disheartens an opponent, most off the types of isolation plays that Cleveland has tried to erase from Smith’s memory during his time there.
The Hawks would launch a late comeback, though, closing the gap to four points at about the one-minute mark, but they couldn’t quite pull it off and subsequently allowed James to rumble down the lane for a thunderous dunk that fully shut the door on their comeback.
James himself had 31 points, and the manner in which he got them was encouraging for Cleveland. After spending much of the series against the Chicago Bulls standing around or settling for jumpers, LeBron was aggressive in taking the ball to the hoop and was efficient because of it, finishing 12-26 from the field and 7-8 from the line for 31 points.
This is the kind of James that the Cavaliers need to show up for every game, to put the pressure on Atlanta’s defense to stop him going to the rim, a task that’ll seem that much taller after DeMarre Carroll suffered what looked like it could be a serious knee injury in Game 1. With Thabo Sefolosha sidelined, Carroll was the Hawks’ best stopper for James, and although Paul Millsap was admirable in the first game, LeBron could wind up feasting without Carroll.
That’s assuming he doesn’t fall into his bad habits, however, which, after hiding away all game, tried to sabotage James in the fourth quarter. He once again caused the Cavs’ offense to stagnate by holding the ball, and with Irving not on the floor after tweaking his troublesome left knee, there wasn’t anyone to assert themselves otherwise, as that’s simply not Smith’s place.
To his credit, James was great on defense, as was the rest of the Cleveland squad, and they forced the Hawks into silly offensive fouls, turnovers and some tough looks for most of the night. Although their perimeter defense was inconsistent throughout the game–Irving was especially brutal–the Cavs’ defensive frontcourt rotations were on point, and for the most part, they did a great job of controlling the glass and preventing second-shot opportunities for a three-point shooting team.
Stealing Game 1 on the road to get home-court advantage is always a big deal, and thanks to LeBron and JR, Cleveland was able to do so. Now, with a 1-0 lead under their belt and the Hawks potentially minus one member of their all-important starting five, they’re surely salivating over the possibility of ending this series as early as possible, especially with James, Irving and Shumpert hurting as well.
Still, as long as the Cavs have J.R. Smith, or at least the one that showed up in Game 1, they’ll be fine.