INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- J.R. Smith is shooting at the far end of the court with LeBron James and smiling. Smith has many reasons to be happy, and the player he's sharing the court with is one of the main ones.
In January, Smith was on the worst Knicks team ever. Now he's playing on a team that has the best all-around player and a real shot at a championship.
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Smith sees similarities between this Cavaliers team, which will start its title quest against the Celtics Sunday afternoon, and the Knicks team that won 54 games two seasons ago. The Cavs won 53 games, are the two-seed, just as the Knicks were, and are facing Boston in the first round, just as the Knicks did.
But Smith said the overall feeling in New York and from fans and family members was that the Knicks were destined for a long playoff run, and that the players became overconfident. He doesn't foresee the Cavaliers losing in the second round, as those Knicks did to the Pacers. He pointed to James' leadership as a major factor.
"Indiana was more focused than we were," Smith said after practice Saturday. "Being in New York and being told, 'You're great, great, great, great, great,' you really start believing it. At first you're humble about it and you're grinding it out. Then you start believing it a little bit too much. We just got whooped."
The Cavaliers have "a more humble approach," according to Smith.
"A lot of that is because Bron won't let us get too big-headed," Smith said. "You don't want to be that great team that didn't make it because of something like this. The team that we have now, if we don't win, there's going to be so much said. So we're kind of putting that pressure on ourselves. We don't want to be those guys."
The Knicks had leaders, including Jason Kidd, to steer them the right way. Ultimately, however, former coach Mike Woodson's rotations and game plan, the team's stagnant, selfish offense, Tyson Chandler's being outplayed by Roy Hibbert and Smith's late-night exploits were blamed for the Knicks' second-round ouster.
Rumors of Smith hitting the clubs the night before games ran rampant. He shot 29 percent and averaged 13.8 points in the last eight playoff games. This came after he averaged 18.1 points in the regular season and was named Sixth Man of the Year. It later was learned that Smith needed major knee surgery.
Smith has addressed his penchant for partying a few times since the Jan. 5 trade to Cleveland. He said he's going out less and focusing on basketball more because there's nothing to do in Cleveland.
He averaged 12.7 points and shot 42.5 percent with the Cavaliers, who were 34-12 with Smith in the lineup. As a Knick, he struggled with the triangle offense, shooting 40.2 percent and averaging 10.9 points.
The Knicks were 4-20 with him and 5-31 overall when team president Phil Jackson decided to tear down the roster in preparation for rebuilding. Smith and Iman Shumpert went to Cleveland in a three-team trade for a 2019 second-round pick and cap space this summer.
Smith likely would have picked up the $6.4-million player option he had for next season. He didn't want to leave the Knicks or his friend Carmelo Anthony. "I think I would have opted in," he said. "I would have stayed. I wanted to be part of the building process to be one of those teams that 'this is the team we got and we're going to give a shot at it.' I wanted to be a part of it."
Smith at first was stunned and disappointed when he was traded, but he couldn't have anticipated how well it would work out. "If I knew what I know now, I would have left already," he said jokingly.
But Smith feels bad for Anthony, who missed 40 games with knee and back issues.
"He's struggling right now," Smith said. "Of course he misses playing. It's crazy because he gets beat up much more than when we were together. We talk all the time. He'll be all right."