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J.R. Smith Needs to Play Better or the Cavaliers are Doomed

The Warriors made their move in Game 4, changing their starting lineup with Andre Iguodala taking Andrew Bogut’s place in an effort to push the pace, have their best perimeter defender matching up against LeBron James from the start and take Timofey Mozgov out of the paint. While the move itself worked like a charm, the main reason why Golden State won is much simpler: they had more players performing well.

All the Cavaliers’ perimeter players not named LeBron struggled, so singling anyone out for a bad performance in one game wouldn’t be fair. It has, however, become impossible not to notice how poorly J.R. Smith has played over the course of the entire series. More importantly, he’s the one who will need to perform better for Cleveland to have a shot, as Matthew Dellavedova is a very limited player and Iman Shumpert is battling ailments. For the Cavaliers to beat this streamlined version of the Warriors, Smith needs to step up.

A quick glance at Smith stats paints a damning picture. He’s shooting 30 percent from the floor and 25 percent from beyond the arc after a dismal 0-for-8 performance in Game 4. He’s contributing next to nothing in all other statistical categories except for rebounds, and while he’s been solid on defense on Klay Thompson at times, he still boasts the worst plus/minus of all players in the Finals. Any suggestion that Cleveland should play its bench veterans more sounds crazy until you realize just how terrible Smith has been on the aggregate.

Smith’s low efficiency would be forgivable if he was being asked to create for himself a lot, but that’s not the case. His usage percentage isn’t high and all of his three-point makes have been assisted. He’s gone 3-for-22 on shots in which a defender has been within six feet from beyond the arc, which means the aspect of his game that’s always made him a solid offensive player –the ability to hit tough shots — has deserted him against Golden State. He’s been nothing but a spot up-shooter who needs a lot of room to be effective.

The Cavaliers need more from him than that and the good news is he’s proved in the past he can make an impact in other ways. It’s hard to find a balance in terms of offensive role with someone like Smith because he can go into shameless gunner mode and highjack possessions if he’s relied upon too much to create buckets. What he can do is drive to the rim occasionally and be effective as a finisher once he gets there. Smith has only driven to the basket 31 times in the postseason, but has shot 50 percent when he has and is averaging high efficiency close to the rim:

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The Cavaliers need his floor spacing and shooting, and if that comes back, it should be enough to provide a huge boost to the offense. If it doesn’t, attacking closeouts or taking his man off the dribble from time to time could be a very good way for Smith to break his slump and get some confidence while punishing the Warriors for not having a true rim protector in their small units. Smith has always been a little too in love with his jump shot for his own good, but adding a little variety to his game this series is a must. If he proves he can occasionally create shots for himself inside, that would ease James’s burden and keep the offense going when LeBron rests:

The other area in which Smith can contribute is as a passer. The Cavaliers are purposefully milking the clock and letting LeBron create on most plays, but after going small the Warriors have been bringing help more often, sometimes playing off Smith:

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Smith took a shot there and it was far from a bad decision. The problem is that’s what the Warriors were hoping for. They’re confident that their small lineups will allow them to make that first rotation in time to at least bother the spot-up shooter, and they haven’t been wrong.

The Cavaliers obviously can’t become the 2013/14 Spurs all of a sudden, because they don’t have the personnel to move the ball constantly without risking turnovers and the Warriors make you pay for every mistake by scoring in transition. They do need to find a way to at least force second and third rotations if they hope to truly catch Golden State’s defense out of place. Smith isn’t the best passer in the world, but he could be competent on simply drive-and-kicks and dump-offs to the big man inside.

J.R. Smith revitalized his career with the Cavaliers by simply playing to his strengths and doing less instead of forcing the issue like he had in the past. Injuries to stars and the Warriors’ adjustments now require someone to step up into a slightly bigger role on offense, and Smith should be that guy for Cleveland because he has the talent to be more than just a floor spacer. If he plays aggressively but still in control, the Cavaliers definitely have a shot in Game 5. If he continues to stand behind the three-point line hoisting up shots that clank off the rim, it’s hard to see how his team has a shot at prevailing.

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