BOSTON — J.R. Smith said he had never heard his name mentioned so often before the NBA trade deadline.
But it wasn’t just the rumors leading up to Thursday that weighed on the 32-year-old Cavaliers guard. The final hour or two as the clocked ticked down to 3 p.m. may have been the most stressful.
“My name was being thrown around a lot out there, so it was nerve wracking for sure,” Smith said after Sunday’s 121-99 victory over the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. “When you see six guys getting traded and there’s still more than an hour to the trade deadline, there’s no telling what can happen.”
But after three trades involving four teams as general manager Koby Altman orchestrated a total roster makeover, Smith survived.
After Smith scored 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting in Sunday’s rout of the Celtics, friend and teammate LeBron James observed, “J.R. gave us something tonight to let us know that he’s still here.”
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue obviously is relieved about that. Lue has stuck with Smith in the starting lineup even though Smith has struggled since returning from a broken thumb last season, a hiatus that also included the birth of his daughter Dakota five months premature.
Most significant in Lue’s mind is what Smith did in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena.
“J.R.’s done a lot for us,” Lue said after practice Monday at Emerson College before the Cavs flew to Oklahoma City to play the Thunder.
“If it wasn’t for J.R. in ’16 making those eight straight points coming out in the third quarter, we don’t win the championship. People saying, ‘Quit on J.R., give up on J.R,’ it’s not right.
“He gives us effort and energy every night. Sometimes your shot is going to come and go — that’s just part of the game. For the most part, his effort is there every night. That’s why I wanted to stick with J.R. and I don’t want to lose J.R., make sure (to) keep him in good spirits, going in the right direction. He’s big for us. When he’s making shots, when he’s being aggressive, our team is a whole different team.”
The arrival of point guard George Hill from the Sacramento Kings on Thursday may also ease Smith’s burden. In the past three seasons, Smith has willingly accepted the challenge of guarding the opponent’s best backcourt player. But Hill, 31, is 6-foot-3 and known for his defense.
“We have stability to where we play a team like OKC coming up where I can focus on my position, and who’s at my position, as opposed to switching over and guarding the 1s, the 2s, the 3s,” Smith said of tonight’s game, the Cavs’ last before the All-Star break. “Obviously we got a helluva point guard in George who can guard 1, 2 and 3. It’s not really I’ve got to switch out of position to guard this guy, he likes to post up. I really get to guard the 2s.”
Asked if he still wanted the top defensive assignment, Smith said, “Absolutely. I definitely want to, but the fact of not having to is the best part.”
While his 8.3 points per game average is his lowest since his second year in the league in 2005-06, Smith is showing signs of returning to his 2016 self.
Since a Jan. 30 game at Detroit in which he shot 2-for-10, Smith has made 27-of-50 (.540) shots from the field and 17-of-35 (.486) from long range. That includes a 4-for-12 and 3-for-9 night against the Houston Rockets in which his minus-32 plus/minus was his second-lowest rating this season. Without that game, Smith has gone 23-for-38 (.605) and 14-of-26 (.538) in five of the Cavs’ last six games.
Those are well above his season percentages of .395 on field goals and .367 on threes.
Asked if he’s feeling like his old self, Smith said, “Yeah, I think so. Just getting a carefree attitude on the offensive end and just trying to be scrappy and be active on the defensive end.”
Against the Celtics, Smith also delivered a driving dunk with 6:41 left in the first quarter that gave the Cavs a 14-12 lead and provided a spark.
“You saw the bench go crazy and everyone was up cheering and excited,” Lue said. “It really set the tone for us early.”
Smith said he was trying to get to the basket for his floater, but changed his mind.
“Once I seen how open the lane was I figured, ‘The hell with it, why not? Show the new guys what I’ve got,’” Smith said.
After going 4-12 starting with a Christmas loss at Golden State, the Cavs have won six of their last nine. Smith said he feels like the clouds are starting to break, for himself and his team.
“With the new guys coming in and still having I would say somewhat the core of what we’ve had the last three years, the sun is definitely starting to come out in Cleveland for sure,” he said. “We’ve just got to stay with it. A game like yesterday afternoon is definitely well-needed.”
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