A wild trade deadline brought out the JR Smith the Cavs need

From ESPN - February 13, 2018

Before Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors came to its dramatic three-part conclusion with The Block by LeBron James, The Shot by Kyrie Irving and The Stop by Kevin Love, there was The Eight by JR Smith.

With the Cavs coming out of halftime trailing the Warriors by seven points on Golden State's home court, Smith scored eight points on 3-for-3 shooting in the first two minutes and 26 seconds of the third quarter to draw Cleveland within two. It dashed the Dubs' hopes of breaking the game open and sprinting toward the title as they did in the deciding Game 6 of the 2015 Finals. And it cemented Smith's place in Cleveland sports lore as one of the heroes who helped cease a 52-year championship drought.

Fast forward less than two years later, and so much is different for Smith and his teammates.

The most dramatic domino of change was Irving being traded to the Boston Celtics in the offseason, of course, but there have been multiple moves that have totally reshaped the roster since June 2016 to the point where the Cavs are hardly recognizable anymore.

"It's crazy," Smith told ESPN after Cleveland's 121-99 rout of the Celtics on Sunday. "We were on the plane on the way [to Boston] and I just started looking around and only really [four] seats are still the same from when we, like you said, won the championship. ... I just told the guys, 'Man, this is crazy. We really like, got a whole new, a whole new team.' And I looked across and Bron was just shaking his head like, 'Yeah, yeah, but we got a f---ing squad, too.'"

James, Love, Tristan Thompson and Smith -- the four holdovers from the title team -- received a four-man infusion of talent last week when the Cavs acquired George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.

Many assumed that the addition of Hood -- a sleek, 6-foot-8 shooting guard -- meant that Smith and his unreliable 39.4 shooting percentage from the field and 36.7 percent 3-point accuracy this season would be headed to the bench.

However, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue intends to stick with Smith, just as he's done ever since he plugged him back into the first unit following a brief experiment with Dwyane Wade to begin the season.

"JR's done a lot for us," Lue said Monday. "If it was not for JR in '16 making those eight straight points coming out in the third quarter, we do not win the championship. People saying, 'Quit on JR, give up on JR.' It's not right. And 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 JR and I do not want to lose JR. 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."

Smith's shot is with him as of late. He's hit three or more 3s in six of the Cavs' past nine games. And in those games when Smith was clicking -- including his 15-point performance against the Celtics, when he went 6-for-7 from the floor (3-for-4 from 3) -- Cleveland is 4-2.

Just like how Smith came out gunning in the second half of Game 7 facing elimination against the Warriors, the 14-year veteran's season took a turn for the better this year when he went for broke with the trade deadline approaching.

"It was, 'You know what? The hell with it. If I am going to get traded, I am just going to go out playing the way I know how to play,'" Smith told ESPN.

He sweat out Thursday. The $14.7 million he will be owed next season as a 33-year-old followed by the $15.6 million he's on the books for in 2019-20 made his contract difficult to move, of course. But with Cleveland completing wholesale changes, Smith was uneasy.

"My name was being thrown around a lot out there, so it was nerve-wracking for sure," Smith said. "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."

He survived the deadline and he will remain in Cleveland -- a place he calls a "perfect situation" for his family, even when the basketball is sometimes far from perfect. Last week after a home game, Smith and his wife, Jewel, popped a black balloon held by James' wife, Savannah, which contained pink confetti in a gender reveal captured for social media. The Smiths, who have three daughters already, are adding a fourth.

Smith is returning to his "When in doubt, shoot" credo on the court -- a significant shift in confidence from a guy who was tempted to bench himself earlier in the season.

"There were times when I wanted to go to [Lue] and be like, 'Listen, man, I am not playing well. Why not take me out?'" said Smith, who in 14 games this season has scored three points or fewer. "Fortunately, I did not and just stuck with it. I have known T-Lue since my rookie year. Our relationship is based on communication -- how he communicates with me, how I communicate with him. He's been really consistent at that."


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