CLEVELAND -- Shooting guard J.R. Smith came to the Cleveland Cavaliers through a trade with the New York Knicks and Oklahoma City Thunder in January of 2015 with the reputation of an offense-first player that was not interested in playing defense.
But since joining the Cavaliers, Smith has been one of the team’s most important and effective perimeter defenders, which particularly came to light when he helped hold Toronto Raptors All-Star DeMar DeRozan to just five points in a 125-103 Cleveland win in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals at Quicken Loans Arena Wednesday night.
“Coach Lue challenged him, gave him the assignment on Paul George in the first round, and now, on DeMar, two of the best two-guards that we have, especially in the Eastern Conference if not the whole league,” Cavaliers small forward LeBron James said.
According to James, Smith has more than answered the bell when it comes to challenging the best perimeter players on the Cavaliers’ postseason opponents.
“J.R. has definitely made himself into a two-way player,” James said. “We said that all last year. We said it in the offseason. Because of injuries, he didn’t get much of a rhythm for the regular season. I feel like he’s back into form where he left off last year in the postseason.”
DeRozan buried just two of his 11 shots from the field against the Cavaliers in the 22-point loss in Game 2, and the typically strong free-throw shooter got to the line for just three attempts, and came up short on two of those tries.
Typically known for his ability to drive to the hoop, DeRozan has been kept out of the paint by the Cavaliers’ defense.
“Just staying locked in, making sure his defensive effort every time down is at a very high level,” Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving of Smith. “He doesn’t necessarily get to shoot as much as I think he would like, but he’s been very locked in from the day we started working on our schemes for the Raptors.
“He takes the challenge. He understands how great of a player DeMar is, and how he can get it going, and he understands that his backside help is there, as well as all of us being locked in to help, is going to be there, so the trust factor’s there, and Swish can just do his job very well.”
Although Smith’s defense has helped the Cavaliers yield positive results in each of the first two games against the Raptors, heading into Game 3 tonight, Smith knows the task is far from complete when it comes to defending the Raptors.
“We can do a lot better,” Smith said. “We can do a lot better on Kyle (Lowry). We can do a lot better on Serge (Ibaka). Valanciunas played extremely well, so there’s a lot you can take from this game. We’ve just got to find and dissect the film.
“We didn’t come out at half and execute the way we wanted to. We had a couple plays to start the third quarter that we didn’t execute the right way. They got in a little bit of a rhythm. We were able to slow it down fast, but it still wasn’t a 48-minute game. Thirty-five seconds, 45 seconds of that lapse still counts.”