At its core, basketball is all about space.
On offense, five players speed around in a blur, like a human time lapse, their movements attempting to create space in the defense. They look for space to dribble, pass, cut and shoot—five men moving in concert to create just the right amount of space to get off the perfect shot. The defense counters, looking to close open space and suffocate shooters. Back and forth it goes, a perpetual hunt for a clearing until the possession ends and the hunt begins anew on the other end of the court.
For 12 seasons, Cleveland Cavaliers shooting guard J. R. Smith has thrived in his quest for space simply because he needs so little of it. He rations it like frontier settlers rationed their crops before a long winter, needing only a sliver of it to accomplish his goal of putting the ball in the basket.
According to nba.com, Smith has taken the highest frequency of shots this season, 37.4 percent, when a defender is within 2 to 4 feet of him—what the league defines as "tight" coverage. And he's hitting those shots at a 38-percent clip. The numbers jump to 47.9 percent when a defender is within 0 to 2 feet of Smith, or "very tight."
In fact, only 20 percent of Smith's shots come when the NBA considers him "open," with a defender 4 to 6 feet away. In those situations, he shoots 41 percent. This creates a perception that Smith would rather shoot with a man in his face than be left alone, as if the abundance of space makes him skeptical, like he doesn't deserve it.
In reality, Smith is surprised when he's left open. When he was growing up playing basketball in New Jersey, the concept of "space" on the basketball court hardly existed at all.
"Me and my brother, we grew up playing one-on-one. Me and my friends grew up playing Knockout 21, where three or four guys were guarding you so you had to make a tough shot 90 percent of the time," Smith told STACK after a recent Cavs practice. "I grew up taking tough shots. Over the course of the years, I got a knack for it."
Smith and his younger brother Chris, who briefly rejoined Smith on the court as a member of the New York Knicks in 2013, used to rush home from school to get in the backyard and start hooping. Discouraged by their mother from traveling to the nearest park a few miles away, the Smiths rarely had the opportunity to run five-on-five. Instead, they challenged each other to games of one-on-one.
A New Jersey native, Smith grew his NBA game from his backyard basketball roots. His offensive arsenal is stocked with quick catch-and-shoot and pull-up jumpers, yo-yoing crossovers and devastating step-backs. He is particularly fond of the step-back, a move he's honed into his best weapon.
"I try to take what the defense gives me," Smith said. "A lot of times they try to cut me off from getting to the basket, so they're already planning so hard on cutting me off, it's easy to just step back and create so much space. It doesn't look like it's a lot of space, but for me it's just enough to get my shot off. When I step back, it's almost like that light at the end of the tunnel."
More often than not, Smith's step-backs end with the beautiful sound of the basketball swishing through nylon with no interference. Rarely do you see one of his shots rattle through the cup, or roll around the rim before falling in. It's nothing but net or nothing at all, a precept that has appropriately earned Smith his "J.R. Swish" moniker.
None of this happened by accident. When Smith was younger, his father Earl put his son through a drill in which he took 3-pointers from seven spots around the arc. Smith had to hit three of five from certain spots, four of five or all five. But there was a catch. If his shot hit anything other than the net, it was counted as a miss and he had to start over.
You may also notice the exaggerated arc Smith puts on his shots during a game, especially if he's missed a few out of the gate. This, too, is no accident, just another lesson instilled by his father.
"When I was 5 or 6 years old, he would tell me, 'You've got to shoot the ball higher,'" Smith said. "So if my shot is flat and it keeps going in and out or it hits the back or front of the rim, I try to shoot the ball as high as I can and make as many shots as I can, as high as I can."
Smith adds that shooting the ball with more arc gives his big teammates like Timofey Mozgov, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson a better chance to snag the rebound in case of a miss. That's a bonus.
Smith has thrived in his season and a half as a Cavalier, his quick-release shot acting as the perfect complement to LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Love's ability to space the floor. A seminal moment came during Game 1 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals, when Smith torched the Atlanta Hawks with his full repertoire of step-backs and in-rhythm pull-up jumpers to the tune of 28 points, including a Cavs' playoff record eight 3s.
But despite a run to the 2015 NBA Finals and the team's 30-11 start this season, things haven't been all gravy for Smith. In a move that shocked much of the NBA, the Cavs fired head coach David Blatt despite his success, citing a lack of "connectedness" and "spirit" among the players. Head assistant Tyronn Lue was elevated to head coach, and he immediately challenged the Cavs to push the ball on offense. Through three games, Smith has enjoyed the change.
"When I get the rebound, instead of looking for Kyrie and LeBron, I can actually push the ball and be aggressive early as opposed to giving it up and catching it on the weak side, and catching and shooting or catching and driving from there," Smith said. "I can be aggressive early in the shot clock. For the most part, I still have the same role. It's just getting down the court faster."
Still, Blatt's firing was bittersweet to Smith, who said of his former coach that he was one of the "first coaches I've had that actually cared about me off the court more than on the court." Smith said he'd "run through a brick wall" for Blatt. But Smith lived and trained with Lue during several off-seaosns when Lue was a player in the league, and the relationship they established made the shakeup more manageable.
"We always knew he would be a good coach, and just to see him go from an assistant to a head assistant to the head coach, it's been great," Smith said. "He understands the players from an all-around standpoint. I think it's harder for somebody like coach Blatt, coming from overseas, didn't play in the league, not knowing the culture. I think it was harder for him to relate to certain people. For the most part, I think Lue's got it down."
Regardless of system or coach, Smith's game will always involve that sliver of space between him and his man. There's no shot too tough, no space to small for him to hoist up his shot and watch it plunge gracefully through the net, like a high diver entering the water with minimal splash.
To Smith, shooting is nothing but a mentality.
"Shooting is so much more mental than what people make it to be," he said. "Of course you've got to have good mechanics. But it's just a matter of how many reps you put into it and believing you can make the shot."
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