CLEVELAND — The struggles had gotten so intense that many speculated the Cavaliers were heading for a lineup change in Game 3 of the NBA Finals Wednesday: Iman Shumpert in as a starter, J.R. Smith out.
Spoiler alert: it’s not happening.
Smith heard the speculation. It didn’t matter, he insisted.
“I feel like I can make each and every shot. … I feel like I’m going to play well every time I step on the floor,” said Smith, who never has lacked for confidence. “Obviously, that doesn’t happen all the time. But my confidence has never dwindled, lacked, chipped away at, nothing.
“It doesn’t really affect me how other people see it. Whether I start or don’t start or whatever the speculations may be, it doesn’t matter. It’s about us. If I start, I start. If I don’t, I don’t. If I come out and make shots, I make shots. If I don’t, I’ve got to figure out another way to do something else to help out our team. So it’s not just about scoring. It’s the confidence of playing well.”
But Smith has not done that in these Finals. To begin with, he has three points from a first-game 3-pointer. In 42 minutes, he has three points on just six shots. Smith is a shooter, of course, but Tuesday he claimed his priority has to be defensively as the Cavs try to stave off a 3-0 hole against a Warriors bunch that has averaged 122.5 points in two games.
“My first focus is the defensive end. I’ve got to stop getting silly fouls, three-point plays, four-point plays and then on the offensive end, keep trying to set screens, set the right plays for ’Bron [LeBron James] and Ky [Kyrie Irving] and try to get some open shots,” Smith said.
Smith, though, is not alone in failing as part of James’ supporting cast. Deron Williams has not scored in 33 minutes. Irving has been torched defensively, and negated by Klay Thompson’s defense on the other end. Tristan Thompson in two games (eight rebounds) has not equaled his season average (9.2).
So some thought coach Tyronn Lue would employ Shumpert for Smith for change.
“Not doing it,” said Lue, even though he likes Shumpert’s defense and praised the way the ex-Knick went after Kevin Durant.
“I’m just trying to make sure I meet him early, don’t let him get to his sweet spots,” Shumpert said. “Just force him to exert energy in places he usually doesn’t think he has to. … You’ve got to try to keep him uncomfortable and make sure he’s doing what I want him to do and not what he wants to do.”
Down 2-0, you try anything. The Cavaliers want to play fast and physical again. But they know they must get help for James.
“We just need our supporting group to be themselves as much as possible,” Irving said. “Understand that they have a unique opportunity to make us that much better. For a majority of this season it’s been on myself, ’Bron and [Kevin] K-Love’s shoulders. And we have done a great job of getting everyone involved and making sure that everyone feels comfortable, but now we need everything and everybody.”