BOSTON - The fine line the Knicks run with the excitable J.R. Smith is that they want him to keep his emotions in check without sacrificing any of his intensity.
The two competing facets of Smith's unique game came to a head late in Game 3 on Friday night when he appeared to intentionally swing his elbow at Jason Terry, hitting the Celtics guard in the head. That prompted Smith's immediate ejection.
As Smith left the court, Knicks coach Mike Woodson said he told Smith that he's "just got to keep his cool." The Knicks were fortunate that Smith -- their second-best scoring option -- was ejected late in a game that already was virtually decided, limiting its potential impact.
On Saturday, after going through a tape session with his players at the team hotel, Woodson reiterated the message he's been preaching all season about players keeping their emotions in check on the court, adding that he's "always in J.R.'s ear" on the subject.
But the Knicks' coach stopped short of publicly criticizing Smith for this specific play.
Instead, after watching it on tape, Woodson suggested that Smith's flagrant 2 foul wasn't as bad as it might have seemed. "I don't think he was trying to hurt anyone last night," he said before the suspension was announced. "It looked like a basketball player trying to clear space to me."
Smith wasn't available for comment yesterday but said after the game that he was trying to induce contact and draw a foul and didn't mean to hit Terry.
The Celtics saw it differently, of course. Coach Doc Rivers said after the game, "I wish I was still playing," presumably so he could have taken care of the situation on the court.
Woodson opted not to respond to that comment. "Doc and I are good friends," he said. "He speaks his mind and I'm going to speak mine and we'll keep it moving."
Before the suspension was announced, Smith's teammates also came to his defense.
Tyson Chandler said he didn't see Smith's elbow-swing as a sign of immaturity but as a hard basketball play in a tense game.
"It was kind of a heat-of-the-moment thing and trying to create space," Chandler said. "And it looked bad . . . I don't think his intentions were the way they seemed."
Carmelo Anthony said Smith "felt bad" about getting himself ejected from a playoff game and expressed that sentiment to his teammates afterward.
"To us, he handled it the right way," Anthony said. "He said what he had to say to us . . . We accepted and we moved on."
To Smith's credit, he walked away immediately after Terry went down on the court, so the situation never really had a chance to escalate.
"He obviously didn't expect to get tossed out of the game, but it's a learning experience because we need him on the floor," Chandler said. "And he's one of our big-time scorers and threats. He understands that."
Added Woodson, "Sometimes during the heat of the battle, things happen on the court. That's basketball. That happens. But it can't fester and linger on. We just have to keep it moving and get ready for the next game and the next possession."