As the horn sounded for halftime in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, there was J.R. Smith: taking one too many dribbles in a zigzag rumble to the half-court line, rising — that exceptional shooting form snapping into existence from his ankles up to his wrists — and launching the ball in a perfect arc that found the bottom of the net like a river finds the sea. Only the ball left his hand like a half second too late.
It was pure J.R. Smith — a high-degree-of-difficulty-shot, taken off the dribble from too far away, that ultimately was meaningless. It was a welcome sight.
As a connoisseur of all things J.R. Smith, I’ve seen him do a lot. I’ve seen him jack heat-check 3s until the snap of the twine sounded like a moan, and I’ve seen him brick poorly considered clutch-time fallaways by the clankerific ton. I’ve seen him untie dudes’ shoelaces, and elbow people in the head, and ride a scooter with a flammable lithium-ion battery through a defeated locker room. But I’ve never seen him be shook, not until the first two games of these NBA Finals.
Smith averaged 11 shot attempts per game this season; his career average in FGAs is 11.2. In Games 1 and 2, J.R. took nine shots total over 69 minutes. Scared to death, scared to look. He was the NBA Finals version of Shy Ronnie.
Then Game 3 happened. Smith’s line: 13 FGAs, 10 of which were 3s, 20 points, plus-33. Never let it be said that J.R. choked for three consecutive games of an NBA Finals.
(Kevin Love is going to get a lunar-eclipse worth of shade thrown at him given the way the Cavs played in his absence. Our own Chris Ryan dropped this now-immortal line in The Ringer’s Slack: “I can feel Kevin Love disappearing like Marty McFly in the family photo.” But never forget that Kyrie Irving and Smith are low-to-medium-key terrible teammates for turning their shit up to 11 once Love got concussobenched.)
“Irrational confidence” is an easy label to put on Smith, but it’s not a perfect fit. The form on J.R.’s jumper is a thing of pure, natural beauty — up there with dawn over the Grand Canyon, the Northern Lights, and mama whales singing songs to their calves. Smith’s propensity for unnecessary fallaways makes rational sense: It’s his way of leaning back to admire the best part of his game in its natural environment, like the way a person checks their reflection in a storefront window. He should never be scared to look.