I can’t believe I’m typing this, but the New York Knicks have once again suddenly made me care about the season. Of course, this has a lot to do with every sane hoops fan’s reverence of Phil Jackson, but it also can be attributed to the Knicks’ abrupt focus on seizing their “white whale,” otherwise known as the 8th seed. Knicks that have struggled all year likeTyson Chandler, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Raymond Felton have regained form, Mike Woodson has been sort of less annoying, but it’s JR Smith who I am most impressed by.
I have written about JR a lot over his Knicks career. I’ve done my fair share of praising him for turning his game around, ripped him for reverting, ripped him some more, but have always considered him an extraordinary talent when focused. The last time I wrote about JR was during the embarrassing “betrayal” incident. Watching him play of late, though, it seems as if “Good” JR is here again and it’s only right to give him the credit I feel he is due.
His numbers have been down this season compared to last year, but despite the off-the-court frivolity that made a lot of headlines earlier this year, he’s gotten much better as the season has moved on. Before the Knicks’ eight-game win streak, JR was shooting 39% from the field, 37% from beyond the arc, and averaging just 13 points a game. Since the big streak, he’s improved to 47% from the field, 42% from three, and scoring over 16 points a game. His rebounding and assists numbers have also increased from 3.9 boards to 4.3 and 3.0 assists to 3.5 per game.
This actually dovetails with a steady increase in monthly productivity. Ever since January, when his antics got him benched, fined, and ridiculed, he’s actually performed much better and has seemed more focused both on and off the court. Think about it — doesn’t it seem like forever since the last JR-Twitter controversy? Instead the only headlines JR is making is the ones like from this morning when his 24 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists, helped the Knicks beat the Brooklyn Nets into the ground.
Of course, there is no stat to measure focus, but one thing I noticed is better free thrown shooting—an erstwhile art that revolves around the notion of superb focus. In January, JR averaged 12.9 points a game and shot a miserable 56% from the free throw line. In February he scored 14.6 points and improved his free throw shooting to 65%. And in this last month of March he finished with 15.5 points per game and a much better free throw percentage of 81%.
His free throw shooting sparked an interest in me so I looked into his shooting when given more rest between games. It turns out the less rest JR has gotten between games, the better his productivity has been. In back-to-back games, JR averages 15.5 points, commits 1.2 turnovers and shoots 76% from the free throw line. On one day of rest, those numbers drop to 14 points, 1.4 turnovers, and 60% free throw shooting. On two days rest, the numbers are a similar 14.3 points, 60% free throw shooting, and 1.6 turnovers, but on three days, his numbers reach a nadir of 9.7 points and 50% shooting from the line. This may not say much, but with the Knicks’ dense schedule of games remaining in the season, “Good JR” might be here to stay for the final playoff push.
Despite the Knicks challenging schedule, I feel pretty hopeful about the Knicks playoff chances. The Hawks are free falling and Danny Ferry’s recent comments about really caring about the 8th seed put the Knicks in a good position to finish stronger than them regardless of the varying schedules. Melo has been doing everything he can to save the season all year, but this is the first time that all the Knicks are actually clicking. As much of a headache JR can be, there is no denying that having “Good” JR here along for the ride only makes the Knicks stronger.