The Knicks are on a roll right now, thanks to the hot hand of their electric swingman. But to the surprise of many, it’s not Carmelo Anthony who’s been leading the way, but rather shooting guard J.R. Smith.
The 27-year-old backup has suddenly flipped the switch and been relied upon by head coach Mike Woodson to lead the way for the Knicks (44-26) during their current six-game winning streak. Smith has averaged 24.6 points per game for the Knicks during this stretch — currently tying for their longest winning streak of the season, and is the longest current streak in the NBA. He’s averaging 17.4 points per game for the season (13.1 for his career), which shows how much he’s ratcheted up his game.
Smith just completed his first back-to-back 30-point nights of his NBA career, and became the first Knicks’ reserve to net 30-plus in consecutive games since Al Harrington did it in 2010.
The fact that Woodson trusts Smith so much is a testament to both the coach’s hard work and patience and the player’s willingness to accept the fact that he’s now a seasoned veteran who needs to shed the image of a sometimes troublesome nuisance for coaches.
Woodson acknowledged it hasn’t been an easy journey for the pair, but added that Smith has done mostly everything that’s been asked of him and he hasn’t seen too many of the antics that clouded Smith’s reputation.
“I can’t speak for other coaches who had him before me, but I saw some things in him that I liked and that’s why we wanted him back,” Woodson said. “It was my job to coach him and show him some love, and I think he’s responded nicely for our club. There’s always room for improvement, and there’s a ways to go, but I think he’s getting there.”
Smith simply shook his head and shrugged his shoulders when asked about his renaissance season. The eight-year veteran acknowledged times aren’t always rosy with Woodson, but what separates Woodson from other coaches in the past who Smith butted heads with is how easily the two can cast aside any heated exchanges because of the mutual respect they have for each other.
“It’s crazy. Off the court it’s like father-son. On the court we bump heads sometimes. He cusses me out, and I cuss him out and we just go from there,” Smith said. “It’s fun. I love playing for him.”
Woodson has had experiences working with young, temperamental, and inexperienced players in the past, and reasoned that’s why he has been able to relate with Smith. He then quipped had he coached the Smith of three or four years ago, they might’ve been yelling at each a whole lot more than they do now.
“I had an opportunity to coach a bunch of 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old young men when I first started coaching in Atlanta. Young players are just different than veteran players,” Woodson said. “Three or four years ago, I probably would’ve been a little more tougher on him, [because] with young players, you have to be able to coach them and pat them [on the back] and that’s what I’d probably have had to do with J.R. ... But now, he’s more seasoned and there hasn’t been much of that. But you have to put him in the right positions and also not let him off the hook. It’s all give and take, but for the most part he’s responded well with what I’ve asked of him.”
Smith has certainly responded and his recent play has not only helped the Knicks regain firm control in the Atlantic Division, but he’s also reinserted his name on the short list of Sixth Man of the Year candidates. His game has elevated so much lately that Smith has essentially relegated Anthony to a sidekick role.
But if Anthony is jealous of this new-found praise for Smith, he’s not showing it. Perhaps because he realizes he needs Smith to continue his upward trend if the Knicks are to seriously contend in the playoffs.
“He’s dialed in right now,” said Anthony. “We’re just hoping he keeps it dialed in right now because the way he’s going right now he’s putting the team over the top.”
Smith has done a great job of feasting on opposing defenses lately. And according to Kenyon Martin, whatever it is Smith has been doing, he needs to continue that pregame routine.
“I don’t know what he’s eating for breakfast, or dinner, or whatever it is, but we need him to keep doing it,” joked Martin. “He’s putting us on his back.”
Follow Knicks beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.