Monday night was the J.R. Smith game. He capped one of the best outings of his career with a bang, catching a pass from LeBron James and drilling a long 3-pointer with 15 seconds to go — the last made basket of the 2016–17 NBA postseason.
Of course, you probably didn’t realize it was the J.R. Smith game, because the Warriors won Game 5 of the Finals 129–120 to complete the greatest playoff run in NBA history, with Kevin Durant turning in an all-time championship performance and crying with his mom, and Steph Curry reacquainting the world with his adorable children. Smith’s would-be climactic shot merely prevented the Cavaliers from losing by double digits, cutting the Warriors’ lead to nine with less than a full shot clock remaining.
But Smith had a spectacular night. He went 9-of-11 from the field and 7-of-8 from downtown, finishing one 3 shy of tying Ray Allen’s record for the most in a Finals game. Smith hit this 35-footer to close the first half:
And he hit this shot that was closer, but more difficult:
(He missed the free throw.)
He hit others, too, nearly every attempt he took, regardless of where it was from or who was guarding him or or whether it came in rhythm. He totaled 25 points, a remarkably efficient night for a player who has been chided for inefficiency throughout his career.
The story of Smith’s career arc is a beautiful one. Once upon a time he was known for clubbing, tying people’s shoelaces together, and talking about wieners and butts on social media. He had a reputation as a flaky dude to whom basketball seemed a tertiary interest. Now, Smith is a family man who played a meaningful role on one of the sport’s best teams, and who has been a bastion of strength in troubling times. (His baby daughter is healthy now.) And he had a spectacular game with Cleveland’s season on the line.
Yet it wasn’t enough. Not even paired with a 41-point, 13-rebound, eight-assist performance from LeBron. Not even coupled with 26 points from Kyrie. Not even with Tristan Thompson transforming from a stone back into a functional big man who put up 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting to go along with eight rebounds. For all that brilliance, the Cavs still trailed by double digits most of the way.
Smith went a combined 17-for-28 from beyond the arc in Games 3, 4, and 5. James became the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire Finals. Irving scored just a shade under 30 points per game in the series. And the Cavs lost in five, by an average margin of defeat of 13.75 points. With the exception of a record-setting Game 4, nothing Cleveland did was enough against these Warriors.
As we look toward the future, the leaguewide fear is that nothing may be enough to sustain success against this iteration of Golden State. The Warriors should retain the key elements of their core entering 2017–18. Can the Cavs improve enough to match their level? They need LeBron to maintain his all-time excellent peak a decade and a half into his career; they need Kyrie to be consistently brilliant in one-on-one situations; and they probably need someone better than Kevin Love — a four-time All-Star — as their third option. They need more performances like Monday’s from J.R., and they need to acquire better talent to replace a number of decent to above-average players on the bench. And they need to do this and stay under the salary cap, all while holding out hope that Golden State doesn’t add more weapons to its already loaded roster.
And that’s why we must celebrate occasions like J.R.’s 3-point barrage. The future of the NBA looks excessively golden. Some nights there will be Curry highlights, some nights there will be Durant highlights, and some nights there will be both. We might soon forget which Warriors championship was which, that it was once possible for a different team to celebrate.
So we should savor legends like Smith’s Game 5. No, he didn’t win, but he fought valiantly against Golden State and drilled a bunch of ludicrous 3s in the process. In the dystopian basketball future in which the Warriors will rule, those stories will be our favorites.