INDEPENDENCE — Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue spoke to struggling shooting guard J.R. Smith on Sunday and Monday and delivered a pretty clear message: Shoot the ball.
“I talked to him yesterday and today,” Lue said Monday following practice. “I don’t know if he’s trying to make the right play for the team, trying to penetrate and kick, but we need him to take those shots, man.”
Smith, whose play has continued to slip since signing a four-year, $57 million contract ($45.2 million guaranteed) prior to last season, is off to a dreadful start at both ends of the floor.
The 6-foot-6, 225-pounder wasn’t happy when his starting spot went to newly acquired Dwyane Wade to begin the season. Smith has it back now, but isn’t doing much to show he deserves to keep it, as his defensive performance has slipped considerably.
Offensively, Smith is averaging just 5.3 points while shooting a woeful .275 from the field, including .234 on 3-pointers (11-for-47).
Even more troubling is that the 14th-year pro is now passing up shot opportunities.
He had several good fourth-quarter looks Sunday in an embarrassing 117-115 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks, but opted to put the ball on the floor and then kick it back out.
“J.R. has to take his shots, get back to being who he is,” Lue said. “He’s a gunslinger. We expect him to take those shots and make those shots, not (be) so worried about putting the ball on the floor as much.
“Just take your shots. If he’s shooting too many or you’re shooting bad shots, I’ll let you know, but we need him to get back to being who he is.”
It’s an approach the struggling Cavs (4-6) need to take as a whole as they prepare to host the Milwaukee Bucks (4-5) tonight at Quicken Loans Arena.
A season ago, Cleveland set a franchise record for 3-pointers made and shot .384 from deep, which ranked second in the league. This season, the Cavs are hitting at a .334 clip, which ranks 25th out of 30 teams.
That struggle has been compounded by a porous defense and horrible starts.
Cleveland is last in the league in defensive efficiency, a complex formula that measures a number of areas, 28th in points allowed (113.4) and 27th in field goal percentage allowed (.477).
The Cavs also continued their habit of falling behind big early in games against the Hawks, who led 27-11 in the first period and 37-28 after one. Atlanta also scored 37 points in the third period.
“We’ve just got to be aggressive, have an aggressive mindset offensively and defensively,” Lue said. “You can’t just ease into games. You’ve got to go into games attacking.”
Coming off three straight NBA Finals appearances and a title in 2016, the Cavs haven’t done that very often, which is why they are 1-5 in their last six games.
Equally troubling, Cleveland has lost at home — the Cavs are 2-4 at The Q — to Orlando, New York, Indiana and Atlanta and on the road to Brooklyn and New Orleans while playing what has been a fairly easy schedule to date.
“I think guys are embarrassed, and we should be embarrassed with how we’re getting beat and the teams that we’re playing having key guys out and (us) still not being able to win,” Lue said. “We all just have to continue searching, continue fighting and continue to play hard.”
Actually, the Cavs’ effort wasn’t consistently good in losses to Orlando, New York, Brooklyn and Atlanta. They fell behind by double figures early in all four games, which led to Wade criticizing the starters after the loss to the Hawks, who had an eight-game losing streak and were missing five players due to injury.
“It was ugly,” center Kevin Love said. “I don’t know if it’s focus or lack of energy. I saw what Dwyane said and he’s exactly right.
“It seems like we exhaust ourselves trying to get back into the game,” he added. “That starts with the first unit.”
Love, who left the Atlanta game in the third period due to illness, spent an hour in the hospital and was discharged after receiving fluids. He practiced Monday and is expected to start tonight.
Guard Iman Shumpert, who has missed the last four games due to knee soreness, also practiced and should be available against the Bucks.
Also good news for the Cavs is that they are 3-0 against Boston, Washington and Milwaukee, arguably the best teams they’ve played, so history suggests they will come out ready tonight against the Bucks.
Milwaukee is led by 6-11, 222-pound Giannis Antetokounmpo, who began the week leading the league in scoring at 31.0 while also averaging 9.9 rebounds and 5.0 assists. Antetokounmpo is shooting .583 from the field, .333 on 3-pointers and .794 at the line.
“The Greek Freak” will often match up with the Cavs’ LeBron James, who began the week fifth in the league in scoring at 28.8. The four-time league MVP is averaging 7.2 rebounds and 9.1 assists while shooting .608 from the floor, .359 on 3-pointers and .846 at the line.
A quick start tonight would certainly help James, Love, Smith and the rest of the Cavs, but Lue says it goes beyond that.
“It’s just not the starters,” the coach said. “It’s all of us. We all have to get better. We all have to put in the work to get out of this hole. The starters have to play better. They know that, but it’s all of us.”