The Existential Crisis of J.R. Smith

In the last two minutes of Thursday night's game, despite being 2 for 15 and 0 of 5 for threes, J.R. Smith put the boot on the throat of the Celtics’ final push with no hesitation. Smith’s positive contribution was mainly due to two gambling “steals” (or at least one steal and a crucial deflection that resulted in a turnover). That was a possible swing of nine points, a swing equal to Smith’s point total for the whole game, of which he played 35 minutes. Smith, an essential part of the Knicks’ success this season, had 33 minutes of really terrible play and two minutes of spectacular play. Those two minutes were enough.

When a player does that to win a nationally televised game, they’re said to be clutch. But J.R. Smith isn’t “clutch,” a “clutch” player is aware of the pressure and rises to it. The influential sports talk press has always described Smith as a “jacker,” a reckless player, but he isn’t that either. To be reckless is to ignore a risk. J.R. Smith has absolutely no knowledge, or ability to begin to understand the risk of a J.R. Smith jump shot. J.R. Smith is good for the Knicks because he has no recollection of his own negative tendencies.

“Know thyself,” commonly attributed to Thales of Miletes (c. 624 BCE – c. 546 BCE), has become one of the fundamental tenets of Western philosophy. J.R. Smith is why Thales and the Oracle at Delphi were both wrong. J.R. Smith thinks like a kid pretending to be Michael Jordan hitting a contested jumper at the buzzer over Craig Ehlo, only he isn't pretending, he thinks he’s that good all the time. Long held in check on the bench, Smith contests that he should be a starter, and his enthusiasm on the court demonstrates that he feels like he’s starting the All-Star Game during every Sunday matinee. However, it doesn’t make him a good sixth man in the way guys who should start subsume themselves to a team role – it drags him into becoming a lunatic.

This lunacy is necessary for a Knicks team that relies on Carmelo Anthony for a significant amount of offensive pressure and performance. Without Anthony on the floor, the Knicks aren’t the same Knicks, but Smith allows them to maintain the auspices of quality through confidence. His self-assuring presence allows them to play a “B” quality ball, which keeps the team moving in the same system and direction at all times. Playoff teams don’t need “A”-grade ball off the bench all time, especially in the East (see: Atlanta, Milwaukee), but they can’t completely collapse either. Smith prevents what otherwise should be a terrible bench from slipping out of the rest of the main starting system.

J.R. Smith has solved the existential dilemma – he is essentially a great basketball player because he knows he is, regardless of his actual existence as a guy who goes 3 for 16 off the bench in 35 minutes.

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Sean Buchanan said...

YES! Sixth man of the year

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