INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — J.R. Smith barely has as an inch of skin not covered by tattoos, offering a colorful timeline of the enigmatic Cleveland shooting guard’s life.
Some of the markings are personal: portraits on his chest of his mom and Jesus, an NBA logo on his ring finger and an interlocking NY on his neck. The tattoos help define him, but he’s also been tagged with some labels he didn’t seek.
Almost from the moment he broke in with New Orleans in 2004, Smith has been branded as selfish, difficult, and moody. Not the guy you want on your team. Several off-the-court issues, including suspensions, arrests and a tragic auto accident in 2007 that killed his friend only heightened Smith’s profile as a troublemaker.
The Cavs, though, have experienced a very different Smith. Since arriving in a trade from New York in January along with Iman Shumpert, Smith has been everything Cleveland could have hoped — one of the league’s best 3-point shooters and a consummate pro.
“He’s sacrificed for the good of the team. He’s as well-liked as any player on the team,” coach David Blatt said as the Cavs prepared for the Eastern Conference finals against Atlanta. “He has been a godsend for us.”
Smith’s in a good place, one which has given him a rebirth of sorts. He knows the outside perception of him isn’t good, but he’s only worried about what he means to those in his inner circle — family, friends and teammates.
He says he didn’t change when he got to Ohio, even though his reputation beat him to Cleveland. He easily adapted to an area much more like his suburban New Jersey roots than Manhattan.
“I’m generally a good person, that’s what the people who know me tell me anyway,” said Smith, who replaced his obsession of illustrating his body a few years ago with a golf addiction. “I’m just being me in a better situation. Unfortunately, this picture of me got painted early in my career, so it’s pretty much taken me nine to 10 years to get over it.”
The NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year with New York in 2012-13, Smith was cast aside this season by the nose-diving Knicks, who packaged him and Shumpert in a three-way deal for future assets. Smith felt discarded. After the Cavs advanced past Chicago in the second round, Smith posted on Instagram a photo of him and Shumpert sitting on New York’s bench stacked above pictures of them side-by-side in Cavs uniforms. The display was captioned meme-style: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Smith said he and Shumpert frequently talk about their Knicks days.
“It was extremely tough,” he said. “To leave after having as much success as we had, it’s a mixed feeling. We’re excited and happy to be part of this here, but we also left our team and the guys we played with for so long that are stuck in that situation.”
Other than the restaurants, he doesn’t miss New York.
“This feels more like home,” he said.
Smith’s lone misstep so far in Cleveland came during a rough series finale in Boston. Caught in a shoving match under the basket, he threw a backhanded fist that connected with Jae Crowder’s face. Smith drew a two-game suspension, and sat Games 1 and 2 against the Bulls.
And while the penalty prompted some same-old J.R. comments, he and the Cavs quickly moved past it. Smith came off the bench and hit several big shots as Cleveland eliminated Chicago, and the Cavs are counting on him to offset Atlanta’s firepower.
On the floor, Smith gives James another arrow for his quiver, an outside shooter who can spot up from anywhere. Off the court, they also have a strong connection.
Smith and James have known each other since high school, and the 30-year-old’s friendship has grown in the few months they’ve been teammates. Several times during this postseason run, the two have gone to morning shootarounds together, ahead of the rest of the Cavaliers. James has helped Smith find a rhythm.
“I understand he’s misunderstood, how everybody perceives him, so I’m able to relate to him,” James said. “I’m able to be a big brother to him and give him the tips on trying to be the best teammate he can be, the best father he can be, the best friend he can be.”
Smith has embraced playing with James and this chance, maybe his best one to win an NBA title.
“To be in this situation with these guys, going this far and to be playing this well,” he said, “it’s a dream come true.”
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