Have you ever picked up a basketball and said to yourself: I would like Nick Young to teach me how to shoot a 3-pointer? Or maybe you’ve stood on an empty court and wondered: How do I run the elbow drill, according to J.R. Smith? Well, you’d be in luck twice, because those videos exist on YouTube. Take them in:
Most people probably wouldn’t think of either Smith or Young as instructional gurus. I mean, Smith once credited the video game 2K for helping him hit fadeaway jumpers four years after tweeting in frustration that he couldn’t hit a shot in a video game.
More often than not, Young and Smith are the protagonists of memes and viral videos (sometimes in a not-so-funny way), the ones whose quotes and tweets (and especially DMs) have no filter. On the court, they’re erratic, inconsistent, and sometimes transcendent. It’s not fair to say that their games are trick-or-treat, because they’re always entertaining no matter the outcome.
Now the 32-year-olds find themselves together in the NBA Finals after long, eventful careers that have turned them into cult heroes. Smith arrives for the fourth time with the Cavs, while Young is making his debut with the Warriors. LeBron vs. the Warriors is the matchup for every fan, but Smith and Young (which would be a pretty solid name for a law firm) is the matchup for those of us who have slogged through nearly eight months of the season day in, day out. The duo represent the irrational confidence that makes a random Tuesday night blowout in Orlando exciting, and the theatrics that make following the league’s daily machinations so entertaining. The convergence of the two at the Finals as part of teams that have defined basketball this decade feels almost like a prank. It is also perfect.
Smith, who joined the NBA straight out of high school, has had a 14-year career, while Young, who played three years at USC, is about to wrap up his 11th season. Both have managed to stick in the league because of their one very special skill: 3-point shooting. They even have almost the same career shooting percentage from deep: 37.4 percent for Smith, 37.6 for Young. Neither has ever been confused for an ace defender, or a playmaker who can orchestrate an offense, but they’ve continually found a place in a league that’s prioritized perimeter shots more and more.
This is Smith’s fourth season in Cleveland, and it’s where he’s found the most success. (In addition to New Orleans, Denver, and New York, he also played in China, where he was accused of often skipping practice and scored 60 points in a game off the bench.) In the Cavs’ offense, Smith has one job: When LeBron passes you the ball, shoot it—and make it. (His nickname is literally Swish.) He did a lot of that the past two postseasons, shooting 43 percent from 3 in the Cavs’ 2016 title run, and 50 percent last postseason. This postseason, he’s shooting right around his playoff average (36.8 percent) from behind the arc on 5.3 attempts per game. But the J.R. Experience is more about the wild fluctuations in his performances from game to game, especially in these playoffs. Before playing a game in the Finals, Smith has already had six games this postseason in which he didn’t make a single 3. In his previous three playoff stints with Cleveland, he’s never had more than two.
But a couple of missed shots (or 10) won’t stop Smith from shooting. His recklessness is his worst and best quality. When he’s hit three 3s or more in a game in these playoffs, the Cavs are 7-2. Smith, a starter in all but one of the Cavs’ playoff games this year, will matter far more than Young in this series if only because he has to for Cleveland to even have a shot at winning.
If the J.R. Experience is a roller coaster, then Swaggy P is Space Mountain. Young spent four and a half seasons on the Wizards before being traded to the Clippers at the 2011-12 deadline. He had a one-season stint with the Sixers, then spent four seasons in his hometown of Los Angeles with the Lakers, where his larger-than-life personality found the perfect stage.
Last summer, as a free agent, Young took a one-year, $5.2 million deal to join the defending champions with the hope of outfitting his bucket-getting hand with a gaudy ring. It was less a chance to showcase his talents and more an opportunity to ride along for what could be a title-winning season.
“I just wanted to be more known as a winner,” Young told ESPN before the season. “I’ve seen JaVale [McGee] win a championship, seen J.R. Smith win a championship, so I needed to get one.”
While Smith is integral to the roster the Cavs have scotch-taped around LeBron, Young is more of a luxury, and a chance for the Warriors to prove that their system can make even the most inconsistent players productive. Swaggy P played in 80 games this regular season—his most since 2009—but averaged only 17 minutes a game and made 37.7 percent of his four 3-point attempts per game. Young has shot 35.1 percent on 2.3 attempts a game in the playoffs, on an average of 10 minutes a game. Not spectacular, but it does rank fourth on the team this postseason, and one spot ahead Kevin Durant.
Young seemed like a Golden State heat-check signing at one point, but now, in the face of Andre Iguodala’s left leg injury that will keep him out of (at least) Game 1, he’s become a vital rotation player. The Warriors are starved for wings in a sea of unplayable centers, and Steve Kerr has had no choice but to turn to Young for some crucial minutes. Young has the third-worst net rating on the team in the playoffs (still a plus-3), but he’s shown flashes defensively thanks to a little bit of effort and a visit during a dream by Dennis Rodman, apparently. With Young on the floor, the Warriors are allowing 99.4 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs, and gave up just 94.6 points per 100 possessions in the conference finals (third best among Warriors regulars). That may be more of a result of sample size or who Young is playing with, but it does point to him not being a contributor on that end. Combine that with a handful of key 3s, and Ring-Chasing Swaggy P may have an effect on these Finals.
Young’s and Smith’s winding paths are half hilarious, half amazing. Their carefree approach off the court goes against the typical champion-athlete archetype: hardworking, tight-lipped, and non-controversial. But they also know how to hit a lot of 3s. All can be forgiven with a hot streak.
These Finals will offer us future Hall of Famers, as well as some of the NBA’s greatest shooters. It will also offer us two cult heroes for the price of one. It’s the Spider-Man pointing meme come to life.