NBA Saturday: Cavs Can’t Absorb Another J.R. Smith Letdown

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Make no mistake, despite barely surviving Oklahoma City’s barrage in the Western Conference Finals, the Golden State Warriors are strong favorites in this year’s NBA Finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers had an easier journey to the Finals this postseason, with resounding victories over the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks  and Toronto Raptors but the squad appears to be upside down versus their conquerors in the same space last season.

The Cavaliers dropped Game 1 on Thursday by 15 points, but were in the game throughout most of the contest. But the Warriors’ top dogs, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, had less than stellar performances while the team relied heavily on their bench play. On the flip side, Cleveland’s trio of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love won the star matchups, but the rest of the supporting cast, excluding Tristan Thompson, was virtually non-existent.

To put things in the proper perspective, the rest of the Cavaliers scored 13 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out two assists. Golden State Warriors reserve Shaun Livingston scored 20 points, dished out three assists and pulled down four rebounds all by himself in Game 1.

Perhaps the biggest disappearing act for the Cavaliers in Game 1 came from veteran shooting guard J.R. Smith, who posted three points on 1-of-3 shooting from the floor in 36 minutes of action. Cleveland simply cannot afford for Smith to become absent this series after proving to be a strong contributor in the nightly rotation throughout the season and during the first three rounds of the playoffs.

Here are Smith’s stats for the regular season and by rounds of the playoffs:

2015-16 Season: 12.4 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 42 percent FG, 40 percent 3PT
13.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 46 percent FG, 52 percent 3PT
East Semifinals:
11 points, three rebounds, 1.5 assists, 50 percent FG, 50 percent 3PT
Conference Finals:
11.7 points, three rebounds, 0.8 assists, 43 percent FG, 40 percent 3PT
NBA Finals: three points, one rebound, one assist, 33 percent FG, 33 percent 3PT (Game 1 only)

To the naked eye, this may seem like a one game blip for Smith who has for the most part retained a level of consistency in Cleveland. However, when you factor in Smith’s train wreck of a Finals last season versus this same Golden State squad, it may be worth wondering whether he can truly get on track.

Let’s take a look:

2015 NBA Finals: 11.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, one assist, 31 percent FG, 29 percent 3PT

While the overall production doesn’t look too far off from Smith’s usual stat line, keep in mind that the 2015 Cavaliers were playing in the Finals without Irving and Love and desperately looking for anyone else to step up to help take some of the offensive load away from James.

But the Warriors were able to bottle up Smith throughout the series and if Game 1 is any indication, the guard has his work cut out for him against Golden State’s perimeter defense.

Cleveland already has very little room for error versus one of the most potent offensive teams in league history and an absent Smith could derail any title hopes the franchise has in 2016. Once again this is just one game and a series’ momentum can dramatically shift in the blink of an eye, but Smith’s inability to get loose versus Golden State in the playoffs has to be concerning.

One silver lining to note: Smith did average 14 points on 56 percent shooting from the floor versus the Warriors during the regular season, which should give Cavaliers fans at least some hope that the veteran can find his groove against Golden State. But can Smith step up when it counts the most? If not, an already tough task has become even more rigid for James and company.