Will J.R. reward LeBron's rescue move?

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Sunday, June 14, 2015

It was well past the time a school teacher should be going to sleep on a Sunday night. But Randy Holmes was determined to stay up for the end of Game 2 of the NBA Finals to see if the Cleveland Cavaliers could hold on for the win.

The Cavs built an 11-point lead late in the fourth quarter on the back of a brilliant effort by LeBron James. But then a series of bad fouls, decisions and defensive lapses by J.R. Smith opened the door for a Warriors' comeback. Holmes cringed as he watched Smith carelessly reach in and foul Golden State's Stephen Curry 75 feet from the basket.

"Dumb gets you beat," ESPN color analyst Jeff Van Gundy said on the ABC broadcast.

"Just no need to reach in there," play-by-play man Mike Breen responded.

Replays showed Smith knew immediately he'd messed up. He reached his arms in the air, as if begging the referees to look the other way. Cavs coach David Blatt, who'd survived his own lapse in focus during the playoffs when the referees missed his errant timeout call at a critical moment of Cleveland's second-round win over the Chicago Bulls, threw his head back in exasperation.

It was almost midnight on the East Coast. Holmes had been nodding off as he watched the second half from his living room in Lakewood, New Jersey. But after Smith's meltdown -- he committed five fouls in the second half and overtime, including two in the final 2:35 of regulation that contributed to the Warriors' rally -- Holmes knew Smith was going to be hurting after a game the Cavs managed to win 95-93.

Eleven years ago, Smith's mother and father had asked Holmes, special education teacher and assistant basketball coach at Lakewood High, to be their son's mentor as he jumped from high school to the NBA. The Smiths trusted Holmes, a former college star at St. Peter' then in his early 30s who had developed a close relationship with J.R. They knew J.R. wasn't mature enough to move to a new city and start life in a league of grown men.

Smith has grown since then, but he still needs support. So Holmes stays in touch with text messages and calls to let him know he's watching.

"I sent him a text after the game that just said #PMA," Holmes says. "That means 'positive mental attitude.' I needed to let him know I was thinking about him. Keep positive. Put it behind you. On to the next game."

Holmes has seen enough over the years to detect a distinct pattern: Smith has thrived when he's had structure and drifted into the wrong currents when he hasn't.

"He's in the moment all the time," Holmes says. "He doesn't always think long term. It's always like, 'I have to do this' or 'I have to do that,' but that's just what's in front of him."

Hence the silly reach-in fouls, mental lapses and impulsive shots that have driven his coaches mad over the years. Of course, Smith's impulsiveness can also be charming and endearing. The bit last year where he started untying people's shoes at the free throw line? Way funnier if the Knicks were a better team.

That's the opportunity now. After 11 years in the NBA, five teams, three trades, countless missteps and bad headlines later, Smith, who turns 30 in September, has miraculously been delivered to basketball heaven -- playing alongside LeBron as he chases an NBA title in Cleveland -- and it means everything to him.

"I feel like he thinks he owes it to LeBron for wanting him on his team," Holmes says.

Though they had known each other since they were teenagers, Smith was stunned when he learned LeBron had vouched for him with Cavs management before they pulled the trigger on the trade with the Knicks that brought him and Iman Shumpert to Cleveland.

"I was kind of blown away," Smith says. "So many people had been saying this or that about me; it was kind of hard to believe this person wanted me on his team."

When LeBron decided to return to the Cavaliers last summer, Kyrie Irving was just 22 years old. The Cavs' other best players were also very young -- top overall draft pick Andrew Wiggins was 19, power forward Tristan Thompson was 23. But after the trade that brought Kevin Love from Minnesota to Cleveland (and sent Wiggins packing), it seemed like LeBron had at least found the beginnings of a new Big Three. If LeBron is able to lead the Cavaliers to this championship, neither Irving nor Love will be at his side. Both have been lost to season-ending injuries. What remains is a group of castoffs such as Smith and Shumpert, aging veterans such asJames Jones, Mike Miller and Shawn Marion, speculative project players such as center Timofey Mozgov and scrappy underdogs such as undrafted point guard Matthew Dellavedova.

There is no secret to the Cavs' strategy in this series: Let LeBron carry them as far as he can. Thus far, he's performed like a modern-day Atlas.

In the first four games, he scored or assisted on 63 percent of his team's points. At times, it seems he is doing everything for Cleveland. He is essentially playing every minute that's possible for him to play (183 of a possible 202 after playing "only" 41 in the Game 4 loss that got out of hand late).

And yet he is not simply dragging his teammates along with him. He's lifting them up. "He's the best player on the planet, but to come to work every day the way he does is just so inspiring," Smith says. "It trickles down to everybody."

That's why it hurts Smith so badly now when he fails. Why he calls his performance in Game 4 "horses---" and raises his hand to declare it was his fault Game 2 went into overtime.

In the Cavs' 103-82 loss in Game 4, Smith missed all eight of his 3-pointers and finished with an abysmal plus/minus rating of minus-27.

The Cavaliers have learned quickly that Smith tends to spiral on bad performances like this. He'll beat himself up for hours, which then makes it even harder for him to turn things around. That's why they had special assistant Raja Bell talk to him after they saw him going down that path following the Game 4 loss on Thursday night that evened the best-of-seven series at 2-2.

Smith had ridden into the arena before the game on something called a PhunkeeDuck, which is basically a Segway without a handle. ESPN's cameras and nearly every reporter in the vicinity snapped video of it. Most found it charming -- one of those quirky things only he would even think of doing.

But Smith looked downright embarrassed as he left the arena on it. Alas, what could he do at that point?

Were his teammates OK with that? Said Shumpert coolly, "It would've been a lot better if we'd won."

It really is amazing sometimes how far a hug can go. A person can feel completely alone and discarded in one moment and fully at home and embraced after a simple human gesture.

Or, as Smith so succinctly put it in an Instagram post last month, "ONE MAN'S TRASH IS ANOTHER MANS TREASURE." The caption was written over a picture of him and Shumpert looking dejected in Knicks jerseys and another with them smiling broadly in Cavaliers jerseys.

"He's running up and down the court with a smile on his face now," Holmes says. "I haven't seen that in a long time."

Smith was in Memphis when he learned that he'd been traded from the Knicks to the Cavaliers.

"We shipped him his stuff," says his father, Earl Smith Jr. "He never came back to New York to get his things. He didn't want no part of it. He just went right from where he was to Cleveland."

This past season was a nightmare for everyone involved with the Knicks. It was already a bitterly cold winter in the city, but when the Knicks lost 16 games in a row in December and January, everything seemed to freeze over into a special kind of basketball hell.

Smith became a symbol of what had gone wrong in new Knicks president Phil Jackson's grand experiment. He simply didn't fit the culture or the system Jackson wanted to create. There was no use for either of them to pretend things could change.

"When Phil Jackson got there, he made his mind up of who he was going to get rid of," Earl Smith says. "That's how J.R. took it. So then you take it one day at a time until they get rid of you."

Smith admits he didn't handle the situation very well, but he isn't sure how he could've changed the final outcome.

"It's not a good feeling," Smith says. "It's pretty hard to come into work every day. Like for you guys [in the media], if you come into work and your editor rips up everything you write, it's not a good feeling. You spend so much time on your craft, before practice, after practice, getting shots up all summer long, and then for somebody to tell you that you just don't fit what they want to do, it's tough."

If you look carefully at Smith's statistics, they aren't much different in Cleveland than they were in New York. And yet Smith says he feels like an entirely different person.

"Since I first walked through the door, everybody was so excited for me to be on the team," Smith says. "I haven't felt that since high school, where somebody actually looks forward to having you on the team and wants you to do well. That's pretty important for a person's psyche."

Credit for that inclusiveness goes to the entire organization, but really to LeBron. He essentially dictates everything the Cavs do now. Nothing happens without his input.

"I knew the man he was," LeBron says. "And I didn't really care about what everybody else thought of him."

They'd known each other since they were teenagers on the AAU circuit. Smith had reached out after he was drafted 18th overall by the New Orleans Hornets in 2004. Declaring for the NBA draft out of high school was something of a last-minute decision for Smith after he'd shared MVP honors with Dwight Howard in the McDonald's All-American game. Smith seemed to know he needed guidance in adjusting to NBA life, so he sought out LeBron and asked if he could train with him.

"He was the No. 1 pick," Smith says. "I came out of high school the next year, so I figured if anybody knew firsthand about the league and what it took, it was him."

LeBron was impressed that Smith was taking such an interest. He invited Smith to train with him at Akron University.

The workouts were brutal. Much harder than Smith ever imagined they'd be.

"I don't think J.R. was ready at the time for how hard they were working," Holmes says. "It was two-a-days and they were working out for maybe three hours at a time. They were just going after each other. I think that's when J.R. realized he was playing with the big boys now."

It was exactly the kind of environment he needed. And it says something that Smith sought it out as both a rookie and after that season.

His high school coach, Dan Hurley, remembers hoping "he'd end up in a strong organization like the Spurs with strong leaders. I felt like if he would've had that from the beginning, things might have been very different for him."

Holmes thinks Smith does best when someone else comes up with a plan for him to follow.

"Some people just need the blueprint in front of them," Holmes says. "I'm not going to call J.R. a follower. But if you put him with people who are focused and doing the right things, people that he respects, he's going to take their lead."

Smith's father was his first guide. They'd go to the gyms around Lakewood to train every day. Earl Smith would count the number of jumpers his son would make, rebound for him and put him through drills. In high school, he thrived at St. Benedict's, an all-boys private school in Newark, New Jersey, run by Benedictine monks and where students wear uniforms and have an 11 p.m. curfew.

"They run a tight ship there," says Hurley, now the head coach at the University of Rhode Island. "And they all loved him."

The Cavaliers could've drafted Smith in 2004. He crushed his draft workouts all over the league. Cavs general manager David Griffin was working for the Suns when Smith came out of high school. He said Phoenix considered drafting Smith with the seventh pick that season after what Griffin deemed "the most impressive draft workout I've ever seen" against Andre Iguodala and Luol Deng.

Like Hurley, Smith says he's often wondered how differently his career would've gone if he'd been LeBron's teammate from the start.

"All the time," he says. "The story would've been totally different."

To be clear, Smith isn't an innocent here. Yes, things could've broken better for him early on. And he did get caught in that blizzard of dysfunction in New York this season. But his reputation was built by years of missteps.

"Some people don't do well with idle time," Holmes says. "And there's a lot of idle time in the NBA."

As a high school teacher and basketball coach, Holmes often experiments with ways to reveal and teach character. He'll end basketball practice 30 minutes early to see which players stay after to get extra shots up without his suggesting it. Most will wander down the hallways, goofing off with whomever they run into.

"It's just what boys do," he says.

Smith was just 19 that first year in New Orleans, too young to go out to a club or bar with his older teammates. So he and Holmes would stay in and play video games or watch TV. But moving from city to city all the time, clashing with old-school coach Byron Scott over fundamentals and feeling the pressure of living up to his immense talent took their toll.

Smith acted out. Scott would tell him to get into the offense for at least 10 seconds before jacking up a shot. Smith would shoot as soon as he got the ball. Scott would tell him not to start off a game by hoisting a 3-pointer. Smith's first three shots would be 3-pointers. In practice, he'd goof off by shooting half-court shots while the team was trying to drill.

Scott tried to treat him like he would any other player. When Smith defied him, Smith would sit.

"Coach Scott is an old-school guy," Holmes says. "J.R. would show these flashes of immaturity, and he didn't have time to baby him."

Said Earl Smith: "It's like a sixth sense. We would always tell him stuff before he would do it. It's like, 'Don't touch this fire, because you're gonna get burnt.' And then he would touch the fire and get burnt.'"

New Orleans eventually had enough. It traded him to Chicago for Tyson Chandler in 2006. The Bulls then quickly flipped him to Denver for Howard Eisley and a couple of second-round picks. It feels strange to say he blossomed under coach George Karl with the Nuggets. After all, Karl famously said, "I just love the dignity of the game being insulted right in front of me" to explain why he benched Smith during a playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs in 2007.

Despite the clashes, Smith played a key role for Denver team that went the playoffs all five seasons he was there. Carmelo Anthony was the team's superstar. Smith was its combustible X factor. It was maddening at times, but somehow it worked. Denver went to the Western Conference finals in 2009 before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Once during his time in Denver, Smith stopped Scott before a game and told him he was sorry for how he'd behaved earlier in his career. He was just young and stubborn. He was afraid to change how he did things, because that's what had made him a star in high school and AAU ball. But with hindsight, he knew Scott was just trying to help him. Scott hugged him and said he understood. The two remain friends to this day.

Smith has played with three superstars in his career: LeBron, Chris Paul and Anthony. It's worth noting all three at one point asked for him back after previous experiences with him.

Smith played in New Orleans with Paul, who tried to lure him to Los Angeles to join him on the Clippers after the 2011 lockout. He almost had him, too. Smith's plane home from China -- where he'd played during the lockout -- landed at LAX, and he had a meeting set with Paul.

But on his way to the meeting, Smith took a typical J.R. mystery tour. He'd been out of the country for several months and was missing his family. On a whim, he stopped to get tattoos of his two daughters on his stomach.

Then he called his father and asked for advice. Knicks executive Mark Warkentien had met him at the gate and made a final pitch. "It was like Jerry Maguire," Smith says with a laugh.

Warkentien's pitch had gotten Smith to rethink things. The Knicks had always been his father's favorite team. And after being away for that many months, he had family on the mind.

"I always told him if I ever get the chance to play for the Knicks, why not?" Smith says.

It was impulsive, but he felt good about it. He was following his gut. Family had always been the most important thing in his life. Why not play for his dad's favorite team?

"The sad part about it, I'm still a Knicks fan," Earl Smith says. "You just can't change overnight. All that Knicks stuff I have in my house, I'm supposed to just burn it because they traded my son?"

Smith was just a boy when his grandfather taught him to play pool. Within a few years, he had mastered the game. Pingpong came easily, too. Clemson offered him a football scholarship after watching a few highlight tapes. North Carolina offered him a basketball scholarship. To this day, he thinks his best sport might've been baseball if he'd stuck with it.

"He could probably bowl a 220 tomorrow, and I don't think he's bowled in a year," says Smith's friend and former AAU coach Jimmy Salmon. "Our AAU program has been around for 19 years and sent 22 guys to the pros, and he's the best athlete who has ever come through it."

Smith started playing golf six years ago after his first daughter was born. Today, he has a 4 handicap and regularly plays with professionals such as Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy.

"We call him a professional hobbyist," says Cavs teammate Love.

Growing up, these gifts defined him. "My dad always used to tell me, 'You can do whatever you want,'" Smith says. "It was just easy for me."

But in the NBA, everyone is talented. Real accomplishment is what you do with that talent. Those who waste it are labeled busts or fools. And early in his NBA career, that's what Smith became. It almost became a self-fulfilling loop. Get labeled as a fool, then act the fool.

He says he's learned to block out the naysayers, that it only bothers him when they bring his parents down. But even the most thick-skinned man would have a hard time deflecting all the criticism Smith has heard.

"I know it bothers him," Holmes says. "Everyone is human."

When Smith faced the media after Game 2, he proceeded to heap blame onto himself for his mistakes at the end of regulation. The pack of reporters around him was 10-deep. Smith never once seemed uncomfortable with how close everyone was to him. His words were sharply self-critical. He took responsibility for all of it. And yet the way he delivered the lines felt a little disconnected, as if he knows he can't go through life feeling each of these moments so deeply. It's too hard to feel that bad so often.

Eight years ago, Smith caused a car accident that claimed the life of his good friend Andre Bell. He blew through a stop sign in his hometown going 67 miles an hour and was broadsided by another car. Neither Smith nor Bell was wearing a seat belt.

"To this day, I don't know how he walked away from that car," his father says.

Holmes was with Smith when he went to see Bell in the hospital. It was clear Bell wasn't going to make it.

"I will never forget his face when we visited Andre," Holmes says. "It was sickening to me. I know he had nothing but remorse. It's the kind of scar you have for life."

A judge sentenced Smith to 90 days in jail for reckless driving. His sentence was reduced, but he still served 30 days. Smith did not comment after the sentencing, but he expressed regret during the trial. Bell's mother wrote a letter saying Smith was "a beautiful young man" who was like a brother to her son.

It was a senseless tragedy. Smith says he spent hundreds of hours in counseling to deal with his grief and remorse.

"There is a lot of guilt. I went to numerous counselors to talk about it," he says. "The anniversary is [June 9], so it's really tough this time of year.

"His mom passed right after he did. I still talk to his grandparents a lot. You want to call and hope they're in good spirits, but it's tough because, how could they be?"

Smith suffered injuries in the accident, too.

"At one point I was like a little kid," he says. "I couldn't lift my arms because of the injuries. My mom had to bathe me. It was a really long way back. We spent a lot of time together. I was able to talk to her and get a lot of stuff off my chest."

Still, there is no way to ever totally move on from something like that. There are only ways of dealing with the emotions.

That's part of why he started playing golf. His oldest daughter was born, and he felt overwhelmed from time to time. He needed some quiet time. A place to think and reflect on the circle of life he'd just lived through.

Over the years, he's gotten more and more into golf. He'll take golf trips with his father and brother. Since being traded to Cleveland, he's tried to play every day after practice.

"I think he's addicted to it," Cavs GM Griffin says.

What does golf give him?

"Peace of mind," Smith says. "It's something to get my head out of everything else that is going on."

You get the sense that he's trying way too hard right now to make amends -- to please LeBron -- to reward the faith the Cavs showed in him -- to seize this opportunity.

"I tell my mom every day that I'm so blessed to be in this situation," Smith says. "I could've been out of the league."

After Smith nearly blew Game 2 with his fouls and defensive lapses, LeBron took him aside and told him, "You want it so bad you're trying to make plays and you're making the wrong plays."

As the series heads into Sunday's Game 5, the need for Smith to make the right plays is growing. LeBron has carried this undermanned team as far as humanly possible against the deeper, healthier, more talented Warriors. But he's starting to show signs of exhaustion. He's needed intravenous fluids just to get game-ready. He needs help, and not the collective 19 points Smith, Shumpert and Dellavedova mustered in Game 4.

Yet few of the remaining Cavaliers can be expected to do much more than they have done. Almost everyone has overperformed to get the team this far.

Everyone except Smith. If there's one guy who can get hot enough to help LeBron steal another game on the Warriors' home court, it's Smith. His offensive storms are as tempestuous as his temperament. In 62 games with the Cavs, Smith's hit at least five 3-pointers 11 times, including an 8-for-12 meteor shower that destroyed Atlanta in Game 1 of the conference finals.

LeBron and the Cavs could use another storm Sunday.

In a lot of ways, Smith has needed to belong to a team like this his entire NBA career.

It's what he had growing up in Lakewood, when everything came easily to him.

Hurley remembers Smith reaching out to a Puerto Rican exchange student in high school and inviting him to spend weekends with him and his family.

Salmon says Smith still leave messages of encouragement on the Instagram pages of players on his current AAU team. He'll come by practice if he's in town.

"If I call him and say, 'This guy is having trouble with his homework or school,' he'll call them," Salmon says.

He gravitates to groups that give him a sense of belonging.

"That's J.R." Salmon says. "He's always just wanted to be wanted."