But lost amid the hoopla surrounding the team's success has been the improved play of sixth man J.R. Smith.
One of the last players to make the quantum leap from high school to the NBA, Smith's first eight seasons in the league could best be described as erratic. He is an exceptional leaper who compiled an impressive highlight reel of dunks but had a tendency to take ill-advised shots.
He was also inclined to linger behind the three-point line, where he was equally prone to shooting his team out of a game as to catching fire.
Smith has feuded with some of the most well-respected coaches in the league, faced trouble with the law and failed to provide a consistent effort in all aspects of the game.
Consequently, the multitalented shooting guard received little interest on the free agent market this summer. He ended up re-signing with the Knicks for two-years and $5.6 million. (The second year is a player option.)
Knicks coach Mike Woodson has been tough on Smith since taking over for Mike D'Antoni last season, but he has made it clear that he trusts the mercurial guard. "It's the best relationship I had with a coach ever, other than playing with my dad," Smith said (via Grantland.com).
The 27-year-old Smith has been more under control so far this season. He is jacking up fewer untimely shots and his 9.0 turnover percentage is the lowest of his career. J.R. also seems to have figured out that in order for him to get paid at a level commensurate with his talent, he needs to dedicate himself to areas of the game other than shooting.
The Newark, N.J., native is shooting below his career average from the field (40 percent, compared to 43 percent for his career) and behind the arc (35 percent, compared to 37 percent). However, unlike in previous seasons, he has not allowed his poor shooting to permeate the rest of his game.
On the contrary, Smith has developed into a more complete player on both ends of the floor. He has made himself a tougher cover by taking the ball to the basket more frequently instead of settling for contested three-pointers. According to 82games.com, 15 percent of Smith's baskets have come within the paint, up from 12 percent last season.
He kept the Orlando Magic defenders off-balance all game when the two teams met on Nov. 13, by mixing in drives with his outside shots, as seen in the accompanying video.
Smith has benefited offensively from the addition of Jason Kidd, whose unselfish play has been contagious. The man who told reporters in training camp, "A shot I don't like? There's not too many of them," has been passing up good shots in favor of better ones for his teammates. According to Hoopdata.com, 1.5 of Smith's 2.5 assists per game have resulted in three-pointers.
In the video below, Smith can be seen setting up Felton for an open look and Novak for two three-balls during the Knicks' lopsided victory over the Miami Heat on Dec. 6.
Smith has developed an excellent chemistry with Novak, in particular. The two sharpshooters create space for Anthony to operate down low and Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler to run the pick-and-roll. Smith routinely swings the ball around the perimeter to Novak for open looks from behind the arc, as seen early in the video below.
Smith's effort against his former team, the Denver Nuggets, was a perfect example of the improvement in his attitude and all-around game. Smith turned in a horrendous shooting performance, connecting on just 5 of 19 attempts, but still managed to register a plus/minus of plus-12 on the night. Instead of sulking about his poor shooting, he contributed to the Knicks' 112-106 victory by grabbing nine rebounds and harassing Andre Iguodala defensively.
Smith's work on the defensive glass has been critical for a Knicks team that struggles to rebound the basketball. His defensive rebounding rate (percentage of defensive rebounds a player grabs when he is on the court) of 16.6 is above average for a guard, and his 4.3 defensive rebounds and 4.7 total rebounds per game are both career highs.
The Knicks' mercurial guard has demonstrated his greatest improvement on the defensive end of the floor. Gone are the mental lapses which drew the ire of his coaches. Smith now competes on every possession and has held opposing shooting guards to a PER (player efficiency rating) of 12, well below the league average of 15.
His defense helped seal a victory for the Knicks over the Charlotte Bobcats on Dec. 5. The game was tied at 98, and Charlotte had the ball when Smith intercepted a pass intended for Gerald Henderson.
He was rewarded with an opportunity to win the game. The Knicks called timeout with 3.4 seconds remaining, and Woodson drew up a play for Smith at the top of the key. Smith took three dribbles to his left, then hit an off-balance fadeaway jumper at the buzzer for the win.
Coach Woodson trusted Smith to take the final shot. Woodson believes in his shooting guard. Knicks fans should do the same.
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