Although acquiring J.R. Smith from the New York Knicks raised some eyebrows, he’s quieted doubters by giving the Cleveland Cavaliers a lift at both ends of the floor.
Smith will now try to help the Cavaliers continue their Eastern Conference climb with a 16th win in 18 games when he returns to Madison Square Garden for the first time to face his reeling former club Sunday.
Smith played three-plus seasons in New York and won Sixth Man of the Year after averaging a career-high 18.1 points to help the Knicks win the Atlantic Division in 2012-13. However, his average dropped to 14.5 as New York missed the playoffs last season.
The streaky guard then fell out of favor during the Knicks’ rebuilding effort this season. He scored just 10.9 points and made 1.3 3-pointers per game before getting traded along with Iman Shumpert to the Cavs on Jan. 5.
With his solid all-around play, Smith has answered questions about how he would fit in with a Cleveland team that was in the midst of a 1-9 stretch upon his arrival.
Since going scoreless off the bench in his debut at Houston on Jan. 7, he’s averaged 13.5 points and hit 2.9 3s per game while the Cavs (34-22) have won 15 of his 20 starts.
The mercurial veteran also has helped them limit opponents to 94.9 points per game and a 41.4 field-goal percentage in the past 15 after they had given up 100.7 on 47.2 percent shooting heading into that stretch.
"From day one, J.R. Smith has come in here with great impact and with great focus on being a good two-way player," coach David Blatt said. "He’s defending his position well, he’s rebounding his position, he’s giving us a real presence at both ends and without question J has been one of the main differences in our team."
Smith had 15 points and made three of the club’s 14 3-pointers in Friday’s 127-89 rout at Washington that moved the Cavs ahead of the Wizards and into fourth place in the East. LeBron James led the way with 28 points and Kyrie Irving added 25.
Smith now looks to play a role in dealing the Knicks a seventh straight defeat, though he says his first game back at the Garden won’t be the same with Carmelo Anthony out for the season following knee surgery.
NBA-worst New York (10-44) has gone 0-14 without Anthony this season.
"It takes away from it a little bit," Smith added. "It’s going to be fun to be playing in front of the home crowd a little bit."
Although Langston Galloway had 19 points and Tim Hardaway Jr. added 17, New York’s offensive woes continued in Friday’s 111-87 home loss to Miami. The Knicks have averaged 88.5 points on 41.2 percent shooting over their last 22 games.
"We just have to stay positive and try to get better," point guard Jose Calderon said.
Hardaway Jr. had a team-high 20 points in the most recent meeting Dec. 4, though it wasn’t enough to offset Irving’s 37 and his late bucket sealed Cleveland’s 90-87 road victory that evened the season series.
The All-Star point guard has shined on the big stage, averaging 34.0 points in his last three games at MSG. James, however, has struggled in the season series as he’s totaled 36 points on 12-of-32 shooting from the field.
Cleveland appears set to bring in veteran big man Kendrick Perkins as early as Monday after he was waived Saturday by Utah, which acquired him from Oklahoma City before the trade deadline.