All Hail JR Smith! And Five Other Thoughts From The First Playoff Weekend

After the first weekend of playoff hoops, SB Nation's Andrew Sharp checks in to talk about J.R. Smith, the "Krazy" glue that holds the Nuggets together. Plus: thoughts on Brandon Jennings, Celtics-Heat, and Durant-Artest, part one.

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All Hail JR Smith! And Five Other Thoughts From The First Playoff Weekend

A few months back I wrote about James Posey, and how he's really the protypical "glue guy" on NBA playoff teams. He played this role to a tee for both the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics, two teams that won the NBA Championship.

Every potentially great team needs a Posey. Someone that can nail threes, play defense, and stay out of the way the rest of the time. A Posey is never the star player, but instead, somebody that comes up big when you least expect. A starter that can thrive when the superstars have canceled each other out. A difference-maker.

And as an addendum to my discussion of "Poseys," I added this note:

That J.R. Smith is the Denver Nuggets’ version of James Posey explains why it’s possible that they’re fatally flawed, and impossible not to love.

It's really true. J.R. Smith is the Nuggets' difference-maker, the X-factor that puts them over the top down the stretch. And it helps explain why Denver is possibly the most Gonzo basketball team in the past decade, at least among playoff teams and legit contenders. One night they are unstoppable, the next, J.R. Smith's launching an airball floater from the foul line while Carmelo Anthony lays motionless on the floor. When the Nuggets are good, they're great, and when the Nuggets are bad... Well, again, it all boils down to J.R. Smith.

He personifies that whole team. So much talent, cold-blooded killer when he's hitting shots, but so many different times when you just say, "What is he THINKING?" In fact, probably my favorite moment from this weekend was after J.R. Smith had hit two backbreaking three pointers in the fourth quarter against Utah, and had the ball on a fast break for the next possession, when Doris Burke exclaimed, "J.R. Smith... We know what he's thinking!"

Cue J.R. Smith barrelling toward the basket and into Wesley Matthews. Offensive foul. Yes, Doris. We all knew what J.R. was thinking there. He's the best.

But for all the hilarity of his missteps, you can't underestimate what he means to the Denver Nuggets. Saturday night, in probably the best game of the playoffs thus far, Smith pretty much ended it himself. Sure, Carmelo took over during the final five minutes or so, but by then, Denver had a comfortable lead. And it was J.R. Smith that put 'em there, one 26-foot jumper at-a-time.

Perhaps in spite of himself, J.R. Smith has become the most important clutch player on Denver's roster. Chauncey and Carmelo have to play well regardless if Denver expects to compete in the playoffs, but if they expect to win, they'll need J.R. to be their Posey. Can he do it consistently for the next eight weeks? That part remains to be seen. But just something to keep in mind as the playoffs unfold: When J.R. Smith is hitting his shots, the Nuggets are pretty much unstoppable. He's the catalyst for them, the most mercurial "glue guy" in the history of title contenders.

A "Krazy Glue guy," if you will. How can you not love that?

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(Krazy Glue: perfect because it's 'K' instead of 'C'... Get it?)

2. THE BUCKS AND BRANDON JENNINGS: FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT, LEARNING LESSONS

We all like the Bucks, particularly when Brandon Jennings is playing as well as he did on Saturday. But damn, Atlanta sure looked good in that first half, huh? Or really, just in the first quarter. Before Jennings Herculean exploits made the game even a little competitive, Atlanta's offensive efficiency was 162, while Milwaukee's was 81.

And that's about how you'd expect the whole series to play out. The Bucks miss Andrew Bogut on defense, and that's not going to change over the course of the series. Every game, the Hawks will have a stretch like Saturday's first quarter, because they're just that good on offense, and Milwaukee doesn't have the guys to stop them. And as far as I'm concerned, that's fine.

It just gives us more opportunity to see Brandon Jennings go into "savior" mode, and try to win it by himself. And when he does that, it's instructive as far as his potential's concerned. There are moments when he looks like Iverson out there, and like Bubba Chuck, when his jumpers are falling, he becomes just about impossible to stop. But then, his jumper's not even as good as Iverson's, and for all the electrifying drives and pillowy floaters that fall, Jennings just can't carry that team for 48 minutes.

For people that have watched him all season, this shouldn't be a surprise. His year has been one, long reality check. After his explosive debut over the first month or two, Jennings started buying into the hype and trying to be the superstar in Milwaukee. This approach is fine for a game or two, or when he's hitting his threes, but over the course of a season, and his career, it's not going to work.

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So here's my one hope with this series: without Andrew Bogut and with a collection of offensively anemic teammates, Brandon Jennings will try to carry the Bucks himself. And fail. As fans, there's really nothing more we could ask for. It'd be the best of both worlds. We get to see Jennings push himself to the absolute limit--sure to produce a dizzying highlight reel--and then hopefully, when the Bucks inevitably fall short, he'll realize that carrying a team isn't his destiny.

To be clear: Against Atlanta, he really doesn't have a choice but to take 25 shots, so I'm not faulting him for asserting himself here. But later in his career, he's going to have the choice of trying to do it himself in the playoffs, or trusting his teammates. Hopefully this series will teach him to do the latter.

If Brandon Jennings is smart, and I think he is, he'll recognize that he needs people like Bogut to thrive against the NBA's elite. Despite the eye-popping quickness and oceans of swagger, Brandon Jennings is no Allen Iverson. But he does have the potential to be an explosive distributor, deadly in the passing lanes on defense, and capable of breaking down any defense in the league when his team needs a spark. Like an alien version of Rajon Rondo, if Rondo weren't already an alien.

Doesn't that sound awesome?

Brandon Jennings' curse right now is he's playing on a team that appeals to his worst instincts, asking him to takeover and be the whole offense. But if this Atlanta series shows him the futility of that approach, it could wind up being a blessing that serves him the rest of his career. As much as it is a proving ground for the greatest players in the game, the NBA Playoffs is how young players learn, adjust, and evolve to become great, themselves.

Hopefully Brandon Jennings gets the message this year.

3. GERALD WALLACE, AKA "CRASH" AKA "BUZZSAW"

It's a shame the Charlotte Bobcats are completely overmatched against Orlando, because watching Gerald Wallace just never gets old. He's the exact opposite of Vince Carter, in that respect. Just look at this photo. For Gerald Wallace, basketball is one, long kamikaze mission.

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25 and 17 on Sunday. It wasn't enough, but still. Basketball is more dangerous when Gerald Wallace is involved, and that's why he's awesome. Here's to hoping he keeps it up for the rest of the series.

4. THE CELTICS AND HEAT: "BOMBED OUT AND DEPLETED. LIKE AFGHANISTAN"

You'll have to pardon my paraphrasing of Dave Chappelle there, but good God, this series is ghastly. I've heard a number of people compare this to those old Heat-Knicks series from the '90s, but that doesn't quite account for just how miserably annoying Kevin Garnett and the Celtics are, nor does it account for Miami's galling mediocrity. Basically, this the Knicks and Heat with more annoying players on one side, and on the other, a bunch of guys who probably should have retired two years ago.

Saturday's night "brawl" typified the painstaking mediocrity here. Paul Pierce pulls a Paul Pierce and exaggerates an injury, Quentin Richardson calls him out, KG gets in his face, a skirmish ensues, and in the midst of melee, Garnett elbows Richardson in the face. It was the perfect ending to a game that was mostly unwatchable from the start. Just a mess of bodies barking at one another, limbs flailing in different directions. Game Two is Tuesday at 8:00. Count me out.

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One silver lining in all this: The Celtics fans hellbent on defending Garnett. Still. It's pretty great. After ignoring all of his other antics that made him so loathsome to basketball fans the world over, they still won't acknowledge that maybe-possibly, one of their heroes is a complete jackass. Still.

And now, after all of Garnett's mean-mugging and finger wagging finally led to an actual fight--where he elbowed someone in the face--there are still Celtics fans out there saying Quentin Richardson should have been suspended too, because he instigated the fight. In other words, Quentin Richardson should get suspended for questioning Paul Pierce's fake injury, and then getting elbowed in the face. "HEAR THAT PAL? GAH-NETT IS THE VICTIM!" If only O.J. Simpson had been a Patriot... Watching Boston fans defend him would have been fun.

(Sidenote: Almost any elbow falls under this umbrella, but Garnett's was definitely a "sucker-elbow," right? I mean, at least step up and shove someone or, if you're going to throw punch, throw a real punch. Don't just blindly throw elbows in a crowd, like some angry sixth grader. Sorry Celtics fans, but it's time to admit what the rest of us have known for a while: Kevin Garnett is the most obnoxious player in the league.)

5. KEVIN DURANT MEETS THE PLAYOFFS (AND RON ARTEST)

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Finally, there was the return of Ron Artest. Nevermind that he looked like homeless male prostitute out there (note the spoltchy facial hair), Artest smothered Kevin Durant all day long, forcing him into rushed shots, blocking his way to open spaces, and generally just making life miserable for the league's leading scorer. And it's a good thing he did, because if Durant had been hitting even a little bit, the Thunder might have stolen the game.

Los Angeles has some pretty tremendous advantages inside on Oklahoma City, but their problem on Sunday was the problem they've had all year; they can't blow people off the court. After a flawless first quarter had OKC looking dazed and confused, the Lakers leveled off, and thanks to the matador defense of Derek Fisher, Russell Westbrook started attacking the basket and chipping away at the lead, and by halftime, it was an eight point game.

In the second half, Oklahoma City never narrowed the margin much further than that, but the Lakers didn't blow things open, either. Which brings us back to Kevin Durant and Ron Artest. The rest of this series we can quantify right now: minus a Kevin Durant explosion, the Lakers are about 8-10 points better than the Thunder. We pretty much knew this going in. For things to get interesting, two variables have to come up right for the Thunder.

A. The Lakers need to fall asleep at the wheel. LA is 8-10 points better than OKC when the Lakers are coasting, but as we saw in the first quarter Sunday, when the Lakers fire on all cylinders, they're on a whole different plane. Nobody in the NBA can touch them at that point, least of all a team that platoons Nick Collison and Nenad Krstic down low.

This can and will happen throughout the series, as it's happened throughout the season for Los Angeles, and really, throughout the past few seasons. Whether it's Phil Jackson's laissez faire approach or the comfort of having Kobe around in case things get close, the Lakers rarely go for the jugular throughout. So the door's open, if only a little bit, for the Thunder to put some pressure on them. But only if...

B. Kevin Durant must bring himself to another level. He's a good as any scorer in the NBA, which is to say, like with LeBron, Carmelo, Wade, Kobe, and a few others, there will be nights when you just aren't stopping him. His battle with Ron Artest isn't about Kevin Durant vs. Ron Artest. For the rest of his career, Durant will face an amalgam of Ron Artests, Bruce Bowens, and Shane Battiers, every single night, or at least every single big game. Some guys will be stronger, some will be longer, some will be dirtier, but as far as Durant's concerned, they're all the same defender.

And really, none of them should be able to stop him.

With Durant's length, even the difficult shots that Ron Artest forces are still, in a practical sense, "good shots" for Kevin Durant. This is why we're talking about a guy who could be the best scorer of his generation. With his quickness, he should be able to blow by Pau Gasol when the Lakers switch on pick-and-rolls. And with his passing, he'll be able to find wide-open teammates when LA doubles. But none of this is possible if Kevin Durant's as uncomfortable as he was Sunday.

Whether he was pressing and forcing shots, or giving up the ball too early, or... whatever, really. He just didn''t have the look of a guy who was ready to eviscerate the opposing defense. Maybe it was jitters and Ron Artest definitely helped, but let's be clear about this: Kevin Durant stopped Kevin Durant. And he'll likely figure it out in game two. When Kevin Durant's on his game, no amount of bumping, hand-in-his-face defense can throw him off.

Basically, when he's "on," the only way to combat Kevin Durant is to deny him the ball, and try to exploit him on the other end. Ron Artest has gotten a lot of credit for his performance "stopping Durant," and that's deserved. For Artest, the performance was a throwback to a time when he did that every night. The "lockdown defender" lives up to his billing, etc.

But let's just say I'm skeptical, and I imagine Durant's hearing all of it with a smirk.

So after a great weekend of hoops, that's one thing to watch for this week. Ron-Ron got the best of KD, and received the lion's share of credit for LA's win. How long 'till Durantula strikes back?

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