CLEVELAND — Three points in Game 1. Five points in Game 2. Leading into Wednesday, all signs were pointing to another disappearing act by J.R. Smith in the Finals. As good as he’s been in the playoffs for the Cleveland Cavaliers, providing reliable offense and surprisingly solid defense, he had been giving them very little in the Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
That is, until Smith’s 20-point offensive outburst in the Cavs’ 120-90 blowout win over the Warriors in Game 3 on Wednesday.
Smith got looks early and often in Game 3, which he insists didn’t change his approach, but he looked more like himself than he has at any other point in the series.
“It really doesn’t do much for my confidence, honestly,” Smith said of his early offense. “I let that side of my brain turn off. I mean, I look at it, it’s a great opportunity to start the game off, but I know how I want to dictate the game, and that’s on the defensive end and trying to stop Klay as much as I can. Try not to let him catch the ball. Make it tough for him as much as I can, and let that dictate my offense. Let that dictate my offensive transition, get open shots, play from there.
“But for the most part, I mean, it’s great. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the look, but it’s not really what I’m looking for.”
The Cavaliers found success in Game 3 going small with Kevin Love out, and it didn’t hurt that Kyrie Irving broke out of his Finals slump to score 30 points. The combined 50 points the Cavs got from their starting backcourt is the most help LeBron James has gotten in this series, and that wasn’t lost on anybody.
“It means a lot,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said after the game. “When he’s making those threes and making those shots, it really opens up the paint for LeBron and Kyrie and Kevin and those guys to have space around the rim. If we play fast and play with a pace, he can get out in transition and get those threes, because when LeBron’s driving the basketball, two or three guys have to stop him or he’s going to get a layup. If not, if they do help, they’ll be kicking out to J.R. for shots. Same for Kyrie. When he’s in transition, guys have to load up to him and J.R.’s going to be open for shots, so that’s what we did tonight.”
Smith was a different player on Wednesday than he was in Games 1 and 2. He hit five three-pointers, and that doesn’t count the halfcourt shot he knocked down just past the halftime buzzer. The change of location was just what Smith needed after struggling in the two games on the road.
“I mean, once we got home, honestly — well, since 1 and 2, my teammates have been talking to me, stay aggressive, be aggressive,” Smith said. “When you get the ball, take your shot. If you don’t have it, give it up. But for the most part everybody’s been supportive. Since we landed the other day, it was pretty much like a clean slate. Get back in the gym. Get back to our routines. Drive the same route I go to the gym every day, and just get back on our home floor and play the right way.”
Despite his offensive contributions, Smith’s most important contribution may have been his defense on Stephen Curry, which James made sure to point out.
“He’s a two-way player,” James said. “Defensively all year long that’s what he’s been doing. The offense comes very free to him and very easy, but the defensive side is what’s making him so great. The contribution that we got from him from the scoring was all predicated on what he did defensively, you know, and he got in great rhythm. He hit some huge shots for us tonight, obviously, but I think it all started on the defensive end where he was much better than he was offensively.”
After Wednesday’s win, the Cavs have made this a series. They’re going to need more of this from Smith, and all of their other non-LeBron players, to pull this off. But this was a good start.