Beyond This Illusion
The Eastern Conference Finals are now over, and LeBron James will be attending his fifth consecutive NBA Finals. We got what we expected, which isn’t necessarily what we wanted, but it isn’t what we didn’t want either. In a season full of surprise and intrigue – aren’t they all in the age of Moreyball? – and barring a miraculous, unprecedented comeback from the Houston Rockets, it may very well be that we receive a Cavs-Warriors Finals. That would pit the league’s current MVP, Steph Curry, against the Most Valuable Player of the last decade, James. And that would be barrel-of-chimpanzees fun.
So much of the narrative of the Finals, like the NBA itself, will revolve around LeBron, and that is perfectly alright. What we must not forget, however, is that this next series will feature the Finals debut of J.R. Smith, bomb detonation expert and titan of social media. For that, we should be grateful.
The last time the Cleveland Cavaliers were in the NBA Finals was in 2007, when Tim Duncan led the Spurs on final ride into the sunset by steamrolling LeBron & Co. in a four-game sweep. There was Duncan, perhaps the GOAT PF, telling LeBron, “This is gonna be your league in a little while…but I appreciate you giving us this year.”
Hell, the last time Cavs were in the Conference Finals was in 2009, during LeBron James’ first MVP season. Mike Brown (!) won Coach of the Year that season. Kyrie Irving was a sophomore in high school. Kevin Love was a rookie in Minnesota, the heir to Kevin Garnett’s throne. Timofey Mozgov was carrying BC Khimki to a bunch of silver medals. Iman Shumpert was a freshman at Georgia Tech, and Tristan Thompson was leading Nevada’s Findlay Prep to a high school national championship.
Earl Joseph Smith III was in Denver, shooting eleven three-pointers en route to a division title and a Western Conference Finals appearance alongside Carmelo Anthony. Following another 54-win season with Melo in New York, a season during which he won the Sixth Man of the Year Award, Smith endured lean times in the Rotten Apple before escaping in a series of trades which saw him and fellow #knickstape comrade Iman Shumpert land in the middle of the LeBron Returns to Cleveland Tour.
Something that observers too often overlook about Smith’s career is that he, like others, responds positively to a winning environment and can, in fact, be the piece that makes a good team great. He was that piece for George Karl’s Nuggets in Denver in 2009. He was that piece for Mike Woodson’s Knicks in 2012-’13, the best New York team in a generation. Since arriving in early January, he has become that piece for Cleveland, coming through the door at a time when a Finals appearance seemed as likely as David Blatt losing his job.
The introductions of Mozgov, Shumpert and Smith, along with the exit of Dion Waiters, seemed to catapult the Cavaliers in the East and, in particular, galvanize LeBron to return to his typical MVP form. Cleveland grabbed the second seed in the conference, and despite losing Kevin Love to a Kelly Olynyk grappling maneuver, it has only lost two games over the course of these playoffs, both to the Chicago Bulls.
In the Conference Finals, Smith averaged 18 points, 7.5 rebounds and two assists per game, even after admitting how difficult it was to pass while feeling so good about his shot. Is there anything more captivating than a player talking about how tough it is not to shoot when his teammate is the best player in the world?
The team lists career NBA journeyman Damon Jones as its “shooting consultant,” but when you have a raw and uncompromising talent like J.R. around, you know who to ask about whether or not to take the shot:
For Cleveland, the Finals will be full of opportunities for redemption at macro and micro levels. The city itself, of course, is without a professional sports title since before Jim Brown took up acting. LeBron, the Anointed of Akron and the best Ohio-produced athlete ever, can erase all memories of The Decision and his time in Miami with a championship, all while staking a claim to property ever closer to Michael Jordan. David Blatt has the chance to prove himself in the NBA after dominating European leagues for years, perhaps becoming a pioneer for coaching in the way that players like Drazen Petrovic and Dirk Nowitzki did.
J.R. Smith has a chance to legitimize himself in a way which was not possible six months ago. His advanced stats-averse game, the risks he takes and the relative idiocy he betrays in contentious situations – all of it becomes diluted if Smith earns the label “NBA Champion.” These Finals stand to be a party regardless, but with J.R. involved, bottle service becomes a necessity.