Jason Kidd stood out of bounds, looking for an open teammate.
J.R. Smith sprinted away from the paint and wheeled around a pick from Tyson Chandler. After a quick slip, Smith regained himself and out-hustled his defender to the corner. He corralled Kidd’s pass and squared his body to the rim, leaning off of his back foot as he fired the off-balance shot towards the basket.
The Suns’ bench adjacent to the court stood up in anticipation, but as Smith’s attempt found nylon, all they could do was watch.
The jumper, which gave Smith a team-high 27 points, secured the Knicks’ 32nd win of the season. Smith was forced to carry the scoring burden for the Knicks with both Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton sidelined due to injuries towards the end of 2012, and he didn’t disappoint.
Fast-forward 20 weeks later to the Knicks’ second-round playoff matchup against the Indiana Pacers. Smith, the newly christened NBA Sixth-Man of the Year, struggled mightily to maintain the consistency the Knicks relied upon in the regular season.
He averaged just 13.5 points on 28.9 FG%, and he shot 23.1% from beyond the arc. During the regular season, he averaged 18.1 points on 42.2% shooting, and 35.6 from three-point range
According to the New York Post, Smith was hobbled by “a swollen left knee that contained fluid buildup,” during the playoffs, which may have contributed to his egregious shooting performance.
Still, Smith’s shooting woes angered a Knicks fan-base hell bent on seeing a 40-year championship drought end. The Freehold, N.J., native wasn’t happy with his performance, either.
“I take the blame for this whole series,” Smith told ESPN.com reporter Ian Begley after the Knicks’ Game 4 loss. “It started off with Game 4 in Boston or Game 5. I haven’t been playing myself. I haven’t been playing my part. I’ve been letting my teammates down. I’ve been letting my coaches down.”
Smith is expected to opt of his current contract and test free agency. The shooting guard will be an unrestricted free agent, meaning he will be able to sign with any team. The cash-strapped Knicks may have difficulty re-signing him.
But still, there remains uncertainty as to whether New York should even bother pursing Smith.
He said that he wanted to “retire as a Knick.” His abysmal playoff performance may sway the Knicks in a different direction, though. After all, championships aren’t won from November to April — they are won in May and June.
The shooting guard owed a large portion of his success this regular season to his reformed party life. Last year, he used to go out every other night, he said. And when the Knicks needed him most, he was out chasing Rihanna.
Glen Grunwald, New York’s general manager, should make it a priority to re-sign Smith, despite his questionable playoff performance. New York would have difficulty filling his scoring output alternatively, given their lackluster cap situation. In turn, Smith may sign with the Knicks for less than he would with another team.
Many Knicks fans may want to move in another direction, but if the team wants to compete now, they don’t have many other options. Amare Stoudemire’s $100 million contract, among others, prevents the Knicks from going after another marquee player.
Chris Paul will be a free agent. At Anthony’s wedding in July 2010, Paul made reference to possibly joining Anthony and Stoudemire in New York in the future.
But the Knicks essentially took themselves out of the running for Paul when they inked Chandler to a four-year, $58 million deal in 2011.
New York looked like the unquestioned No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference for the majority of the regular season. A healthy, focused Smith may be their best option to reclaim that position.