The Cavaliers had their back against the wall.
A day after losing its Christmas Day game to the Heat, Cleveland trailed the lowly Magic by four. Victor Oladipo had just made a free throw with 0.6 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
As the Cavaliers took the ball out of bounds, they surely realized they – by rule – had enough time left to catch and shoot. Cutting into Orlando’s lead on that final possession would be difficult, but it was at least possible.
Shawn Marion took ball out.
Mike Miller ran up court and left view at a pretty fast pace. Even if he were trying to get open, a long pass would have been risky. If the went ball out of bounds without being touched, Orlando would have gotten possession where the pass was thrown – right under Cleveland’s own basket. If the Magic had lost track of him, maybe it’s worth attempting the long pass. They didn’t, but at least he took a defender with him.
Marion first looked to Kevin Love, who barely moved from his rebounding position and puts up his hands as if to say, “Don’t pass to me.”
Meanwhile, Dion Waiters, bit further upcourt, pointed to Matthew Dellavedova and then slowly walked towards Cleveland’s bench.
Marion passed to Dellavedova, who showed no urgency and took one dribble to ensure time ran out.
Magic 75, Cavaliers 71. End of third quarter.
“I think it’s a dumb play, but that’s just me,” J.R. Smith, who was traded from the Knicks to Cleveland this week, said earlier this season when asked more generally about teams intentionally running out the clock to end quarters rather than attempting desperation heaves. “And I thank them for it, because if it would have went in, it would have hurt us.”
It’s quite common for players to pass on those low-percentage end-of-quarter heaves, and nobody batted at an eye when the Cavaliers did it.
Kevin Durant admitted there are situations he’d hold the ball rather than risk lowering his shooting percentage. Shane Battier said it’s not worth the hit on individual stats. And those are two of the NBA’s most respected players in recent years.
But Smith – who’s (mostly fairly) known for his bad habits – is unafraid to take those shots.
“I just do it because I think it’s the right play to make instead of just dribbling the clock out and being selfish,” Smith said. “…It can be an advantage for our team. I’ve never been one to worry about my shooting percentage.”
Who knows whether Smith’s intentions are truly altruistic? Maybe he just cares about his scoring average more than his field-goal percentage. Or maybe he (like so many NBA players) loves the thrill of attempting shots from halfcourt, so much so that he (unlike so many NBA players) takes them over protecting his field-goal percentage.
But those attempts are inarguably good for his team. In a sport where only points scored and allowed – not field-goal percentage – count toward the final won-loss verdict, the only downside to attempting them is on a player’s individual stats.
And Smith takes them without apology.
There’s no feasible way to count how players handle the end of every first, second and third quarter in every game. But I use attempts from at least 40 feet as a reasonable substitute.
Since Smith went to the Nuggets in 2006-07, he has take more such shots (73) than anyone in the league during that span. He just hasn’t made a single one.
Here’s the leaderboard for that time period on shots from at least 40 feet:
You might be thinking Smith’s numbers are skewed, because he jacks up long shots during typical possessions. But I watched all 32 of Smith’s shots from at least 40 feet the last four years, which were available through NBA.com’s media site. Of the 32, 30 were the type of shots – a heave to end the first, second or third quarter – I’m discussing here. One exception was a desperation attempt to the end a fourth quarter, and the other came as the shot clock was expiring after a pass had been deflected into the backcourt.
Smith’s 40-foot attempts are not inflated by his penchant for jacking well beyond the 3-point arc whenever he pleases, though he says that trait helps on his heaves.
“You really get a sense for how far the basket is and what shot to shoot in that situation,” Smith said.
He practices the long shots frequently, and he knows exactly how he wants to attempt them depending where he is on the floor:
- Halfcourt or near it: regular jumper
- About three-quarter court: pushing ball from closer to his chest
- Further back: baseball throw
One tactic many players take in those end-of-quarter situations is shooting with their best form no matter how much time is left. It seems that’s the internal compromise they make. If their best form means they don’t get off the attempt before the buzzer, they’re fine with that. But if they can use their natural motion and still get the shot off, that’s an attempt they’re willing to live with.
Smith – who is skilled at quickly releasing the ball when necessary – sees that trick and all the others, and like he said, he appreciates the opponent passing on those shots. But when a teammate declines the attempt?
“I get mad, because I’m like, ‘Y’all should have gave it to me. I would have at least tried to make it,’” Smith said.
Trying to make it is one – admirable – thing, but actually making it is another story. Despite all his attempts, Smith has never made a shot from beyond 40 feet, though he has had plenty of close calls.
Smith called his favorite desperation attempt a rushed 3-pointer to end the first quarter in Game 2 of the Knicks’ 2013 first-round playoff series against the Celtics:
That shot went in the books as a 36-footer, exposing a flaw in my methodology. That attempt probably belongs in this count, but there’s no feasible way to review all those slightly closer looks. Forty feet ensures nearly every shot is an end-of-quarter heave, and the evidence is conclusive enough that Smith is willing to take those shots.
What’s a little less clear is how that affects him.
Smith has battled injury this season and taken just two shots from at least 40 feet, but last year he led the NBA with 14 such shots. That season, he shot 39.4 percent on 3-pointers. Remove the 40-plus footers, and his 3-point percentage jumps to 40.6 percent. Those 1.2 percentage points aren’t a huge difference, but they at least slightly alter perception of Smith, especially because they drop him below the 40 percent bar from beyond the arc.
Is he worried that will affect him in contract negotiations if executives don’t realize why his shooting percentage is lower?
“I haven’t really thought about it like that,” said Smith, who has a player option for next season. “Actually, I think it’s a good thing. I think they should know my worth from the way I play and how I play. So, I don’t think shooting percentage should come into it.”
The Cavaliers, for contractual reasons or any other, obviously disagreed during that Dec. 26 game against the Magic.
Cleveland still won that game behind 15 fourth-quarter points from LeBron James, who was not on the court to end the third quarter. In many ways, that exemplifies who the Cavaliers have been this season – structurally unsound but usually talented enough to win anyway.
At this point, everyone believes they understand what J.R. Smith adds to the equation, and it’s no surprise when he says, “I feel as though there’s not a shot I can’t make.”
But maybe that’s just the team-first attitude the Cavaliers need.