Why J.R. Smith is not the totally selfish player you think he is

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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:

Player FG FGA
J.R. Smith 0 73
Andre Miller 1 69
Jamal Crawford 3 60
Steve Blake 1 57
Raymond Felton 3 56
Andre Iguodala 3 50
Corey Brewer 2 44
Aaron Brooks 1 43
Kyle Lowry 1 42
Derrick Rose 1 41
LeBron James 2 41
Monta Ellis 2 40
Rudy Gay 1 39
Devin Harris 1 38
Jarrett Jack 2 38
Caron Butler 1 37
Carmelo Anthony 1 37
D.J. Augustin 1 37
Joe Johnson 1 37
Mo Williams 1 36
Zach Randolph 4 35
Beno Udrih 0 35
Nate Robinson 2 35
Deron Williams 2 34
Tyreke Evans 4 34

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.

Lakers lock up No. 1 seed in West with win against Jazz

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Anthony Davis had 42 points and 12 rebounds, and the Los Angeles Lakers clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs by beating the Utah Jazz 116-108 on Monday night.

The Lakers (51-15) own a six-game lead over the second-place Los Angeles Clippers and have five seeding games let before starting their first playoff run since 2013.

“If you’re winning enough games to secure the No. 1 seed, you’re building the right habits that are going to be necessary for you to win in the playoffs,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Obviously we have bigger aspirations than the No. 1 seed, but we are proud of the accomplishment and we’ll enjoy it while we’re getting ready to get our group ready for the playoffs.”

Utah (42-25) has clinched a playoff berth and is fifth in the West, a half-game behind Houston and a half-game ahead of Oklahoma City.

Davis’ final basket resulted in a 4-point play with 42 seconds left, as he sank a 3-pointer while getting fouled by Rudy Gobert and made the ensuing free throw to give the Lakers a 114-104 lead.

Utah’s Donovan Mitchell answered with a 4-point play of his own that cut the margin to 114-106 with 36 seconds remaining, but the Jazz couldn’t get any closer. Davis made two free throws with 5.2 seconds left to wrap up the scoring.

LeBron James scored 22 points, Dwight Howard had 11 and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope added 10 for the Lakers.

Mitchell scored 33 and Mike Conley had 24 for Utah. Gobert added 16 points and 13 rebounds for the Jazz.

The Lakers were coming off a 107-92 loss to Toronto in which Davis shot just 2 of 7 and scored 14 points. Davis was much more active Monday right from the start, as he scored 13 points and shot 6 of 14 in the first quarter alone.

Davis had 24 points by halftime, marking the 20th time this season he’s scored at least 20 points in a half.

“Coach just told me to be more aggressive,” Davis said. “He felt like, and I felt like too, that I just kind of played into Toronto’s defense, accepted the double-team. I was making the right plays, but I still have to be aggressive at the same time.”

Utah stayed close and only trailed 58-56 at halftime because it got its own stellar start from Mitchell, who scored 21 points in the first two periods.

Mitchell then connected on a 3-pointer to cap an 8-0 run by Utah to open the second half.

But the Jazz got increasingly careless with the basketball as the third quarter progressed, enabling the Lakers to seize control of the game. The Lakers scored 14 straight points and went on a 19-2 run late in the third quarter.

“When they turn the pressure up, we’ve got to be able to execute even better,” Mitchell said. “We turned the ball over way too many times. They did a great job of taking us out of our actions. … We went up six, they turned it up even more and next thing you know, we’re down 12 or whatever.”

Even after Utah’s Emmanuel Mudiay snapped that run by hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer, the Jazz still trailed 86-76 heading into the final period.

The Lakers stayed in front the rest of the way.

Watch Shake Milton drain game-winning three, lift 76ers past Spurs

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How do you like Shake Milton now?

After a rough first game where he exchanged words with Joel Embiid on the sidelines, Milton bounced back and hit the game-winning three against the Spurs Monday night.

With the Sixers down two and 10.4 seconds left, Milton was inbounding the ball from the side. He got the ball into a well covered Al Horford who gave it right back, but Milton’s defender Dejounte Murray, sagged off to prevent a lob into Joel Embiid, and that left Milton open.

Ballgame. The Sixers go on to win 132-130.

Philadelphia has split its first two in the bubble.

This was a bigger blow to the Spurs, who are in a race for the eighth/ninth seed in the West and a shot at the play-in series. The Spurs had won their first two in Orlando but are now tied with the Trail Blazers for the nine seed, with New Orleans just half-a-game back after its win. It’s a Battle Royal in the West and this kind of loss could come back to bite San Antonio.

More Zion Williamson, more defense gets Pelicans first bubble win

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For two games the Pelicans played matador defense on the perimeter — Ole! — while the world was asking, “where’s Zion?”

With their playoff dreams on the line Monday night, both showed up.

Zion got to play 25 minutes and scored 23 points with seven rebounds, his attacking the rim opening up the Pelicans’ offense. More importantly, Jrue Holiday brought the defensive on Ja Morant — staying in front, cutting off his drives, and helping hold the soon-to-be Rookie of the Year to 5-of-21 shooting — sparking a night where the Pelicans held a high-powered Grizzlies offense to less than a point per possession.

The result was a 109-99 Pelicans win, their first in the bubble.

Brandon Ingram said after the Pelicans second loss in Orlando they would likely have to win out in their final six games to make the playoffs. Maybe, maybe not, but they have to rack up a lot of wins and this was a big first step. With the victory, New Orleans is 2.5 games back of eighth seed Memphis, and half-a-game game back of ninth-seed Spurs (the eighth and ninth seeds in the West almost certainly will be in a play-in series). There is still hope.

After a relatively unimpressive first two games for Zion — leading to whispers around the league about his conditioning and if he should be playing — he looked more like his best self Monday night. Even connecting with Lonzo Ball to finish a half-court alley-oop.

Zion wasn’t in peak form, going 9-of-21 from the floor and looking winded t points, but he was out on the floor and when he is his gravity opens up everything else. Brandon Ingram led the way with 24 points, including some clutch buckets late and a lot of shot creation. J.J. Redick had 16 off the bench.

The offense was the sizzle, but the Pelicans’ defense was the steak in this game. Alvin Gentry talked about the team defensive strategy on Morant, via Christian Clark of the Times-Picayune.

“We tried to keep him (Morant) out the paint as much as possible, so we gave up some 3s. But luckily for us, he only made one of them [1-of-10]. I thought we did a good job overall defensively. That was the difference in the game. We had our moments in the game offensively where we had great ball movement. But our defense is what won us the game.”

The Pelicans have to bring that energy on a back-to-back — they play the Kings’ tomorrow. Every game is still vital for them, this is a playoff sprint, not a race. Ingram was right, they can’t afford any more losses.

Because of their 3.5 game lead entering the restart, the Grizzlies are safe for now despite an 0-3 start in the bubble — losing every game by single digits. Morant is a future star, Jaren Jackson Jr. might be the best player on this team in five years (he had 22 points on the night), but this is a young team that is not consistent. It needs more shooting and that was evident tonight. They also miss Tyus Jones at backup point guard a lot.

The challenge for the Grizzlies is the five games they have left: the Jazz, Thunder, Raptors, Celtics, and Bucks. That’s a lot of brutal games lined up in a row, and Memphis needs to find some wins in there.

Michael Porter Jr. has breakout game, drops 37, Nuggets top Thunder in OT

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Michael Porter Jr. scored a career-high 37 points and Nikola Jokic had a triple-double to help the Denver Nuggets top the Oklahoma City Thunder 121-113 in overtime on Monday.

Porter, who averages just 7.5 points, had the big performance in only his third start of the season.

“He has got tremendous size, length, he can score the ball, he’s got soft touch and he does so (scores) in a very efficient manner,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “He can also rebound at a very high level. Tonight, we saw all those things put together.”

Porter made 12 of 16 shots and grabbed 12 rebounds. His previous career high was 25 points.

“All I’ve got to focus on is bringing the energy and the effort, lock in on defense and the rest will take care of itself,” Porter said.

Jokic had 30 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists. He scored 13 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to help Denver strengthen its hold on third place in the Western Conference standings.

It was a key win for the Nuggets, who were missing three starters. Jamal Murray sat out with left hamstring tightness, forward Will Barton sat out with left knee soreness and guard Gary Harris sat out with a strained right hip.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 24 points, Chris Paul had 23 and Danilo Gallinari added 20 for the Thunder, who also were short-handed. Thunder coach Billy Donovan said Dennis Schroder, Oklahoma City’s No. 3 scorer for the season, left the bubble to join his wife for the birth of their second child.

The game was close throughout. Denver’s Monte Morris was fouled with 6 seconds remaining, and he made both free throws to give the Nuggets a 109-108 lead. Paul missed the first and made the second of two free throws with 2.9 seconds remaining to tie the game at 109. Denver’s Troy Daniels missed a floater from near the free throw line at the buzzer, and the game went to overtime.

In the extra period, Denver outscored Oklahoma City 12-4 and held the Thunder to one field goal.

“In the overtime, I thought we played terrific on both ends of the floor,” Malone said.