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2018 NBA Playoffs

J.R. Smith shows signs of life for Cavaliers

Guard contributes 11 points in lopsided Game 3 win after scoring a combined four in first two games

CLEVELAND — Just seconds after J.R. Smith’s 30-foot jumper late in the third quarter increased his team’s lead to 24 points, the Cleveland Cavaliers guard turned to the crowd as he jogged back on defense. Both arms extended, he flashed the “3” sign with each hand, perhaps an indication of his arrival to the Eastern Conference finals.

No, this was not on par with Michael Jordan shrugging toward Magic Johnson, then a television commentator, after making a 3-pointer against the Portland Trail Blazers during the 1992 NBA Finals.

But the Cavaliers had to be saying, “Finally” after Smith showed up in Cleveland’s 116-86 wire-to-wire win over the Boston Celtics on Saturday to help keep alive the team’s hopes in this series, which the Cavaliers can even with a win here on Monday.

A quick glance at the box score doesn’t reveal anything dominating from Smith: He scored 11 points and didn’t record an assist. But that was seven more than he scored combined in the first two games of the series that were played in Boston, where he had a no-show in Game 2 by going scoreless — the third time he’s been blanked during the postseason.

“About time,” was Smith’s response when asked about what appeared to be conversations he was having with himself after each made shot. “I try to stay confident as much as I can. Just trying to shoot the ball and not put too much emphasis on trying to penetrate.”

Smith wound up hitting three of his four 3-pointers in a game where the Cavaliers had six players score in double figures, led by 27 points from LeBron James, who hit eight of his 12 shots. The win also signaled the arrival of Smith’s backcourt mate George Hill, who scored 13 points on Saturday after an embarrassing 3-point effort in 33 minutes in Game 2.

That’s right, Game 3 was the first of the series for either of the Cavaliers’ starting guards to score in double figures.

“It’s very important for our guards to be aggressive,” James said. “No matter if they are making shots or not, it keeps the defense at bay. You saw that in G-Hill’s mindset to start the game … and the same for J.R.

“We always sit up here and talk about how much pressure me and Kev [Love] try to take off our teammates. Those guys took pressure off us. Their aggression just settled us in and allowed us to play free as well.”

For the Cavaliers to win this series and do something that no other NBA team has ever done — beat a Boston Celtics team that has never lost a playoff series after going up 2-0 — they’ll need, at the very least, an appearance by Smith in the remaining games.

He’s shown that he’s been more than capable of being an impact player while wearing a Cleveland uniform: Smith hit two crucial 3-pointers to keep the Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, a series in which Cleveland became the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a title.

For Smith, it was his best week ever.

But this has been an up-and-down season for Smith, who started the season sulking after Dwyane Wade took his starting job. Smith complained that he didn’t have a chance to earn the starting spot and was criticized for wearing a hoodie on the bench during the season-opening game against Boston.

Later in the season, Smith was suspended for throwing, of all things, soup at assistant coach Damon Jones.

Smith wound up with the second-lowest scoring average of his 14-year career (8.3 points per game) as the Cavaliers went through offseason and in-season changes.

Perhaps it was the three days off between games that was behind Smith showing up for the first time this series.

“It helped us a lot ’cause we old,” the 32-year-old Smith said at his locker, laughing. “We’ve got some old guys over here. They’ve got one guy [Jayson Tatum] who was born in 1998. Just thinking about that is crazy. We needed it [the rest], we definitely did.”

But the Cavaliers don’t have that luxury the rest of the series, which will be played every other day. Cleveland’s goal is to take care of business with a win on Monday, which would make this a three-game series. In that scenario, the momentum shift, as well as the added pressure on a young Boston team, would appear to play in the favor of the more experienced Cavaliers.

Cleveland fans who’ve been wondering, “Who shot J.R.?” through the first two games of this series are now grateful that “J.R. shot back” with occasional accuracy.

“He took his open shots today,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said of Smith. “We did a good job moving the basketball and making the extra pass, and we shot it well. When we’re playing like that, guys are going to get open shots. We’ve just got to make them.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.