As I look back at the box score from last night’s 104-89 loss in game one of the NBA Finals for the Cleveland Cavaliers, one number stands out more than any—three. No, not the number of steals Kyrie Irving had—but the number of shots J.R. Smith took in the entire game.
Yes, you read that correctly. The man who has never seen a shot he did not like only took three shots in game one of the NBA Finals. On the biggest stage with the brightest lights on him, Smith attempted fewer shots in 36 minutes of time on the court than Richard Jefferson and Matthew Dellavedova did each in under 15 minutes.
Maybe it had something to do with a hand injury earlier in the game when he dove on the ground for a loose ball, but it did not look like it bothered him when he attempted shots later in the game. This brings me to the question, what happened to the guy who provided the following quote a few short weeks ago?
“It’s kind of hard, hitting the shots I was hitting, to try and pass the ball, but you’ve got to figure out a way.”
To put that quote in perspective, let’s take a look at Smith’s playoff performance up to this point.
In four games against the Detroit Pistons, Smith averaged 9.8 shot attempts per game—with 8.3 of them coming from downtown. He shot 46.2 percent from the field in that series, providing 13.5 points in 35.3 minutes per game.
Against the Atlanta Hawks, his numbers were slightly down in those four games—as he attempted 7.5 shots per game with seven of those coming from three-point land. He shot 50 percent from the field in that series, scoring 11 points per game in an average of 34.5 minutes.
Finally against the Toronto Raptors in a six-game series, his numbers rebounded to an average of nine shots per game with 7.5 coming from downtown. He shot 42.6 percent from the field, giving the team 11.7 points per game in 31.1 minutes.
When you look at the overall numbers from the Eastern Conference playoffs, Smith has been very productive. However, when you look a little deeper there were four games in which he attempted fewer than five shots. To this point, the Cavaliers were able to win all four of those games, so his lack of offensive production was not really called into question by anyone, until now.
Smith has been a catalyst for this Cavaliers team since being acquired last season. In the 2015-2016 regular season, he averaged 12.4 points per game on 41.5 percent shooting from the field. His 40 percent three-point performance during the regular season was second only to his 40.3 percent average back in 2007-2008 with the Denver Nuggets for best in his career.
In the playoffs, Smith’s 45.9 percent three-point average on 7.3 attempts per game is the highest for any player with 50 attempts or more in the playoffs. The next closest was Serge Ibaka, who shot 44.9 percent on 69 attempts—Smith has taken 109 threes thus far.
When you look at the numbers, the formula is pretty simple. The Cavaliers starting SHOOTING guard needs to SHOOT for this team to win an NBA Championship.
Smith is not some starry-eyed youngster playing for a title for the first time in his career. On this stage a year ago, his shot attempts were 13, 13, 9, 12, 15 and 15 for the six-game series. He was atrocious from the field, shooting 31.2 percent from the field and 29.4 percent from three-point land, but the offensive effort was there.
In game one of the 2016 NBA Finals, Smith was M.I.A. on the offensive end of the court—and that simply cannot continue if the Cavaliers hope to steal game two on Sunday in Oakland. Head coach Ty Lue and the coaching staff need to find a way to get Smith clean looks early and often Sunday.
Getting Smith going early will only open up the offense more for the rest of the team, hopefully forcing the Warriors to crash on him when he gets the ball behind the three-point line. This, in theory, will then open up more lanes to drive to the basket for the rest of the team and provide more clean looks than the contested, mid-range jumpers the team settled for far too often in game one.
Luckily for the Cavaliers, they are playing a seven-game series for the NBA Championship and not one game. This is not a time to panic for the coaching staff and fans. The Cavaliers just need to get back to what got them here and not adjust their game to the Warriors. Move the ball, get clean looks and attack the basket and you will come away with a victory to even the series 1-1 on Sunday.