DENVER — J.R. Smith has become a liability on the court and a distraction off the court for the Nuggets in these playoffs.
Yet, he's still the guy the Thunder should fear most.
After a pair of dreadful performances in the first two games of this Western Conference series, the Denver guard used the Nuggets' off day to create controversy. He expressed frustration about lack of playing time. He said this was a team without a pulse. He admitted there's a strong possibility he'll sign with another team this summer.
His current team spent the eve of Game 3 answering for his comments.
“J.R.'s fine,” Nuggets captain Kenyon Martin said. “You guys are blowing it out of proportion, man. We're all right over here.”
Asked a follow-up question about Smith's potential, Martin cut it off.
“Listen, if y'all want to talk about J.R., go talk to J.R.,” he said, the volume and the intensity of his voice rising. “All right? Like I just said, we're fine. As a team, we're fine, him included.”
Nuggets coach George Karl told reporters: “That you're magnifying what happened (Thursday) is incredible. We had a good day. ... Unfortunately, you want to magnify the dysfunctional and crazy — and history allows you to do that — but I really think it is incorrect and wrong because it's not the truth of what really happened.”
Hmm, the Nuggets doth protest too much, methinks.
Denver seemed like a team in trouble after Game 2. Now, this appears to be a team in turmoil.
Crazy thing is, Smith could be the guy who saves the day. Yes, Arron Afflalo is returning to the lineup, but no one could provide a bigger spark than Smith. Good J.R. could get hot, score 30 points, shift the momentum and extend this series.
Or Bad J.R. could hasten the Nuggets' demise.
Either is as likely as the other.
“He's the X factor,” Thunder guard Russell Westbrook said. “I've seen him score 40 multiple times. He's definitely capable of doing that, so you've always got to keep your eye on him.”
Smith might be one of the best athletes in the NBA, and that's saying something. He can get to the rim. He can hit from behind the arch. He can make it all look effortless, too.
How dangerous is Smith?
Thunder defensive whiz Kendrick Perkins took special note of Smith in his pre-series prep.
When James Harden was hanging his head after a woeful shooting performance in Game 1, Perkins wanted him to keep his chin up.
“I told him that he took J.R. Smith out of the game,” he said. “I told James, ‘If you finish with two points and he finishes with two points, you did a great job.'”
Lo and behold, Harden and Co. actually did hold Smith to two points in Game 2. It was the sixth time in six games this season that the Thunder has held Smith in single digits.
He is averaging 6.2 points a game and shooting 27.0 percent against Oklahoma City.
“Guys have done a good job,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said, “but we still have to come and do it again.”
That's because Smith could still score 40 points tonight.
“He's the wild card,” Brooks said. “He's the guy who can get 25 and quickly.”
Or he could just as quickly be out of the game.
He is his own worst enemy. No one gets inside his own head more often than Smith. No one psyches himself out of a game easier than Smith.
We saw it Wednesday night in Game 2. He checked into the game late in the first quarter. Less than 30 seconds later, he drove hard to the hoop. Serge Ibaka blocked his shot, and Smith ended up on the floor.
As the action went to the other end of the court, Smith just sat there on the hardwood.
Umm, this is an NBA playoff game, not a mid-December game in Toronto.
That sequence started the downward spiral for Smith. He missed a jumper. He committed a turnover. He fouled James Harden on a 3-point attempt. As the Thunder reserve guard made all three ensuing free throws, Smith stood in the backcourt applauding each one.
You knew right then that Smith was done.
Score when he checked in: 19-9, OKC.
Score when he checked out: 42-17.
Smith sat the bench the entire second half. When the action went to the other end of the floor, he didn't watch, blankly staring straight ahead.
“If the team wins and I don't play, I'm not going to say I'm overjoyed with that, but I'm happy with that,” Smith said Friday after practice. “But if they lose and I don't play, of course I'm not to be happy with that.
“I feel I can be a difference-maker on the team.”
He's right about that.
Still, if these past few days are any indication, the difference Smith makes tonight for the Nuggets won't be the good kind.