There actually are a couple of sure things in the world of J.R. Smith, who keeps people guessing about what he might say or do next. Despite all the puzzlement that surrounds him, this much is certain: a) his start to the season was painful all the way around and b) the Knicks need him to be much better.
Mike Woodson said as much before Sunday night's staggering 103-99 home loss to the depleted Pelicans. The coach knows he has to be patient with Smith, who admitted Friday that his surgically repaired left knee still is sore. But patience is balanced against urgency. And it still is not clear which is hurting more, his jumper or his leg.
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"Unfortunately, my offense isn't where I want it to be, it's not where my team wants it to be," Smith said after he scored 12 points and shot 4-for-11, 3-for-8 on three-pointers. He was a little better than he had been, but he was not a dynamic force.
"It's coming around slow, so I've got to do more: get rebounds, kick the ball to the hot hand, keep being vocal on the defensive end, just being more valuable to my teammates," he said after his team's ninth straight defeat.
After losing their star, Anthony Davis, to a broken hand in the first half, the Pelicans looked like sitting ducks, and still they won.
"We just didn't get stops,'' Smith said. "They were pretty much scoring at will. Especially my guy. I don't know what the hell I was doing on defense. It was just one of those days, I guess."
The truth is, the Knicks need Smith for his offense. That was a lock last season. His 18.1 points per game won him the NBA Sixth Man award and earned him a big three-year contract.
The Knicks were willing to withstand the mini-controversies his Twitter feeds sometimes cause. They were willing to endure his five-game suspension for violating the NBA's drug policy. His scoring seemed like such a sure thing.
"He was such a big piece of what we did last season,'' Woodson said. "He's seven points [per game] off the production he was [giving] a year ago. That's big to our offense and we're struggling in that area. We need him to pick it up."
Woodson added that there must be some understanding for someone coming off major surgery. "But at the end of the day,'' he said, "we still need him to play and play at a high level."
Smith wasn't troubled by his knee Sunday night. "If I'm hurting the team, then I shouldn't be out there. I don't look for excuses," he said. "He plays me, he has confidence in me, I have confidence in myself, my teammates have confidence in me."
These days, though, the Knicks just can't be sure about much.