J.R. Smith shoots way into fans’ hearts in debut win
The Knicks immediately rectified Friday night’s shocking loss with an inspired 104-97 win over the defending champion Mavericks.
While everyone is still engulfed in Linsanity, New York made room for another form of insanity, the arrival of J.R. Smith. The young veteran was able to end his obligations with his Chinese team and played in his Knicks debut just one day after signing for the $2.5 million exception.
Smith paid immediate dividends as he notched 15 points and received almost as much love as New York’s most recent sensation, point guard Jeremy Lin. Smith wasn’t even sure he’d be ready to play on Sunday, as he didn’t participate in the team’s shootaround or a practice session. But when starter Carmelo Anthony was ruled out for his seventh-straight game (groin) and his replacement, Bill Walker, was a late scratch with a bruised elbow, it meant Smith would get considerable minutes due to the dearth of available wings.
“Coach [Mike D’Antoni] shocked me because before the game he said I was barely going to play, but then I go in there and play down the stretch,” Smith said. “My teammates were unbelievable in having the confidence in me and that’s all I really needed.”
The former Nuggets star checked in midway through the first quarter and promptly got a steal on his second possession and then added a deep 3-pointer on his first attempt. He started three-of-three on his 3-pointers and sparked an already rabid Garden crowd into more of a frenzy.
He cooled some during the middle quarters, finishing six-of-16 from the field, but despite the up-and-down debut, Smith said it beat his sometimes tumultuous experience in China and is just happy to be in the NBA again. The New Jersey native said he really “appreciated” the cheers from the crowd and was happy to give them reasons for the applause.
“To really be able to contribute, not so much on the offensive end but on the defensive end as well, was huge for my confidence,” said Smith. “After going through the last four months, it was a whirlwind to be able to come home and play in front of family and friends.”
Smith’s hot start was tempered by a slight dropoff in production, but he was picked up by his newest mates, most notably reserve forward Steve Novak. One of the most unlikely stars during this run, Novak notched all 14 of points in the fourth quarter, including four clutch corner 3s to help the Knicks (16-16) take a slim lead midway through the final quarter. The spurt was spearheaded by a 12-0 Knicks run to erase a double-digit deficit and once again ignited what was becoming a dulling Garden crowd.
D’Antoni said he has no qualms about extending his bench if they continue to play the way they did today and added the quality of talent is a good problem to have.
“I think it’s a reasonable assumption to play more guys,” D’Antoni said. “All 12 I’m sure will be utilized and will contribute. We’ll play as many as we can who’ll play well. … And with Melo coming back tomorrow and with Baron [Davis] sometime pretty soon, we’ll be full [strength] pretty soon. We’re getting there.”
Novak and Lin have certainly arrived as of late, as they were the catalysts during New York’s key 27-8 fourth-quarter run, with Lin notching six points and six of his assists in the final quarter — where he accounted for 20 points. And although he still had an inordinate amount of turnovers with seven (he came in averaging 5.8 per game), Lin was still clutch down the stretch. He finished with a game-high 28 points (11-of-20 shooting), a career-high 14 assists and five steals.
Afterwards, Lin relished the faith that D’Antoni has put in him to continue to make the dazzling plays that have so far offset the giveaways.
“I’m being aggressive and learning a lot from my mistakes,” Lin said when asked about balancing both the good and bad. “I’m just trying to play the way I’m supposed to play by staying aggressive and putting pressure on the defense.”
Lin added he’s amazed at how well guys have jelled despite the limited opportunities to bond.
“J.R. gave us a lift and we didn’t even practice with him yet,” Lin said. “And Novak was on fire. We’re just trying to get better, build that chemistry, enjoy all this and win some games.”
The Knicks have won nine of their last 10 and get back to work Monday night against the cross-river rival Nets — ironically the team that was one of the first to experience Linsanity.
» Tyson Chandler exacted revenge on the team that decided not to pursue him in free agency despite helping them win the title last year, as he tallied 14 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. Amar’e Stoudemire was certainly happy to have someone like Chandler have his back and said once Anthony returns, the sky’s the limit: “The plan is manifesting right now. We all feel comfortable because we’re back on the right track.”
» D’Antoni admitted due to the timing of the signing and no practice time, that when Smith was inserted into the game it was mostly an impromptu offense: “With J.R. in there we had no plays, which I kind of like playing that way because it’s harder to scout. We were just moving the ball and they just played [because] he didn’t know any of the plays, so we didn’t run any.”
He then quipped it was kind of like pickup basketball: “I was kind of waiting for somebody to say, ‘I got next.’ So we just kept the court and kept on playing.”
D’Antoni said he’s looking forward to adding even more firepower once Anthony returns. And added it’ll be a good problem to have so many gunners at Lin’s disposal: “If they double-team Jeremy then we’ll have Melo and Amar’e and guys like Novak, with the way he’s been shooting the ball, wide open. And that’ll be tough on [defenses]. … We should be really good. Easy to say on paper, but everyone has to adjust to everybody. The potential is there though and it’s up to the coaches and players to make the best of it. Sometimes guys will get 10 minutes and sometimes a guy will get 30, but as long as everyone is buying in and winning it’ll be fun.”
» The fact that Lin has routinely led the team in scoring also doesn’t bother D’Antoni: “I don’t think it matters. If he does, he does [but] just as long as he continues to make the right plays … so far so good. I don’t even look at the shot attempts. If he’s making the right choice and making the right plays it shouldn’t matter to anyone and I don’t see that as a problem.”
» Smith noted that both Anthony and Clippers star point guard Chris Paul are godfathers to his two daughters, so to him it just came down to which one could make an offer he couldn’t refuse. He said he chose Anthony and the Knicks because of the familiarity of the surroundings (he’s a New Jersey native) and his comfortable relationship with Anthony (they played seven years together in Denver and share the same agent, Leon Rose).
» Former Hawks head coach Mike Woodson was brought over to New York in late August to help fix the defense. And judging by the recent tear they’re on, his presence has been felt. Woodson was seen constantly coaching-up the players during timeouts and it’s evident his aggressive defensive philosophy has stymied opponents. Woodson doesn’t want to be known simply as the de facto “defensive coordinator,” but D’Antoni said it’s apparent Woodson’s voice carries a lot of weight: “It’s a different voice to have, which is good. I can tell Woody, ‘You’re going to be the voice in the film room on defense because they might get tired of listening to me after 15 minutes.’ I don’t like calling a guy first, second or third assistant. To me they equally have the same voice. His voice has helped.”
Follow Knicks beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.