A lesson learned, then forgotten
Up until the beginning of the NBA Western Conference finals, J.R. Smith had become a different person. It seemed. Not conformed or altered, just refined. As if he were born again for the first time. While everyone was thinking he was saved by the Church of Chauncey, there seemed to be something deeper going on. Like he finally "got it." Whatever "it" might be.
After shooting 3-for-13 in the first two games of the series and 0-for-5 in the first half of Game 3, Smith lifted a 3 in the air from the deep corner with 1:53 left in the third quarter. It dropped. He bowed his head. A prayer. As he walked back up the court, he looked up through the roof of the Pepsi Center, past the sky thousands of miles higher than the mile high he already stood and whispered two words: "Thank you."
Gratefulness exposed. Yep, he got it.
Then less than two minutes from the time he thanked God for letting him make a shot, his first meaningful one in his first conference finals, Smith dropped another long 3-pointer as the quarter elapsed. From that point on, everything that seems to be the problem with every young athlete not named LeBron Raymone James fell back into place.
Unnoticed in the euphoria of the moment was what seemed to be an exorcism of that thankfulness. The showboating; self-indulgent screaming; the righteous indignation; the jumping up, hands flying, pointing at himself, "this is my house" individualism; the jersey-poppin', emotional eruption that reeks of what everyone claims is the problem with an entire generation of ballplayers took over the body of J.R. Smith as the horn sounded to end the quarter.
Just that quickly, God had nothing to do with what had just happened.
It was amazing to watch. Not the actual behavior (that's J.R., if the Nuggets are cool with it and it doesn't cost them games, who are we to find fault?), but the quickness with which it occurred. A span of four possessions. From "Thank you" to the heavens above to "[expletive] you" to Sasha Vujacic. All Sasha did was try to play defense on a guy who has the God-given ability to change the course of a series with the flick of his wrist.
After Game 4, Smith tried to explain. "I'm not going to lie. I would be upset if somebody is out there tearing us up and hitting 3s and showboating. But at the same time, that's the way we play. That's the way the Denver Nuggets play. We play with emotion. We play with adrenaline. We've just got to make sure it's positive emotion."
Now, I hate to use J.R. Smith to address a larger issue, but sometimes it happens. As an advocate for Smith and other players who catch hell for "behaving" like ignorant and spoiled (fill in the appropriate noun, there are too many floating around) on the court, it was hard to look past that moment in Game 3 and not take something from it.
How could someone who was going through possibly the toughest struggle of his professional career seem so forgetful and unappreciative so fast? How could someone be thanking God for helping him break through this struggle one minute, then be verbally demoralizing another human being for not being able to stop him the next?
Not to get too deep or T.D. Jakes on you, but at some point -- as a witness -- you have to wonder which side of J.R. Smith was the genuine one. And if we don't know, does he?
It seemed like at some point J.R. Smith realized that as skilled as he is as a basketball player, it can be taken away from him. All the practice, all the concentration, all the mechanics and fundamentals, all the hours of extra shots, all the routines and rituals and all the superstitions can sometimes have no effect on why your gift won't work for you.
Which is why most athletes have faith. Because when nothing seems to be going right and you've done everything you've been taught since the day you first picked up a ball and the results are still empty, it's when things do go right you realize that sometimes "it" has nothing to do with you.
That is the reason athletes look up and say "Thank you" when 3s drop. That is why football players point to the sky. Why pitchers hold their gloves to the heavens. Why batters kiss the charms around their necks. Why sprinters and runners fall on their knees after winning races. Why gymnasts are speechless and break down after 10s.
It's why Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan cry.
But never have I seen it forgotten so quickly as with J.R. Smith, and the problem is, I'm not sure if he even noticed it. And neither did anyone else.
There's an old saying that goes something like this: Never put yourself in a position to be humbled. Translation: Humble yourself before God does it for you.
The first three minutes of the fourth quarter in Game 3 went like this for Smith: turnover, missed 3, defensive rebound, missed layup.
Now, he had an incredible game in Game 4. Despite his antics and the continuation of perceived and misunderstood belligerence, J.R. was the reason the Nuggets returned to L.A. with a swagger matched right now by only the Orlando Magic. But L.A. has not been kind to him in this series. In Game 5, he had another 3-for-13 game, going 1-for-10 on 3s. As Charles Barkley likes to say, "Role players only play well at home." As my grandmother liked to say, "God don't like ugly."
For the Nuggets, it might be time for them to get Smith to humble himself, or they need to step in and do God's work. Make the young brother realize that if he is going to thank God during a game when his shot isn't falling, he needs to act accordingly during that game so that whatever he is giving thanks for can become his blessing, not their curse.
Because this can go one of two ways for J.R. Smith, or anyone else who forgets so quickly: God can take the "Thank you" for what it really seemed to be in that moment, or He can simply not put you in a position to thank Him during a game again any time soon.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.