Commentary

Nuggets' Smith is hit or miss

Originally Published: May 27, 2009
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

JR SmithDoug Pensinger/Getty ImagesJ.R. Smith has the ability to shoot the Nuggets to victory or to shoot them right out of the game.

Chemical change can be brought about by positive catalysts or negative catalysts. Then there's the Denver Nuggets' J.R. Smith, who is both.

Smith can make 4 of 9 3-pointers and score 24 points in a Nuggets victory, as he did in Game 4. Or he can turn icy and miss 8 of 10 3s, as was the case when he helped the Nuggets lose Game 3. He can score three points and give the Los Angeles Lakers a point on the same play, as he did when he was T'd up for taunting the Lakers' Sasha Vujacic after hitting a long shot over him in Game 3.

You don't coach Smith so much as you simply pour him in and wait for the reaction.

"Keep his confidence up?" Nuggets coach George Karl said incredulously when asked how he maintains Smith's spirits. "How about my confidence? How about driving me crazy?"

The most unpredictable Nugget of all finally made an impact on this series in Game 4. Before that, he was 5-for-19 on 3-pointers. There's no predicting which version of Smith will show up for Game 5 on Wednesday, but it's not a stretch to say that whichever one does will determine the outcome of the game. I'm not sure whether it's the Nuggets or the Lakers who should be more worried about that.

[+] EnlargeJ.R. Smith
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty ImagesSmith finally found his touch from behind the 3-point line in Game 4.

Conventional wisdom says bench players fare better at home than on the road. That was the story in Game 4 at Denver, when Smith led the Nuggets' reserves to a 42-24 scoring advantage over their Lakers counterparts. But you can't always apply the term "conventional" to Smith. He has had 3-point shooting games of 0-for-7 at home and 4-for-9 on the road during these playoffs. He'll get his shots if he wants them. There's no defense that's designed to keep guys from shooting contested 3-pointers, just as there's no way to keep the guy next to you at the blackjack table from hitting on a 16 against a dealer showing 3. Sometimes they succeed in spite of themselves.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson is more worried about Smith's penetration, which led to four assists in Game 4 as the Nuggets made a determined effort to get into the paint.

Jackson has been all over the place almost as much as Smith, by the way. He responded to a question about his team's play by criticizing the officiating. (That earned him a $25,000 fine from the league.) The next day, he said he discussed the officials only because he was asked about the subject. He also responded to a question about Dahntay Jones' flagrant fouls with a reference to President Barack Obama's Supreme Court justice selection.

"I'm not a person that's a judge in that situation," Jackson said. "I think that's a person that has to be nominated by our new president."

There's no appeal process in the NBA, and if Jones picks up another flagrant, he will receive an automatic suspension for the next game. Smith, meanwhile, is sitting on three technical fouls in the playoffs. If the league were a little looser with the definition of taunting and were to include most acts of showboating as well, Smith would have reached his six technical-foul limit in Game 4 alone. He was turning around, yelling, shaking his head and, after hitting a final 3-pointer in front of the Lakers' bench, strutting around in a modified George Jefferson walk.

"It [ticks] people off," Lakers forward Trevor Ariza said. "He hit some shots late in the game, when the game was over. If he wants to get excited about that, that's cool."

Smith understands the way the Lakers feel.

"I would be upset," he said. "I'm not going to lie. I would be upset if somebody is out there tearing us up and hitting these 3s and showboating.

"But at the same time, that's the way we play. That's the way with Denver Nuggets play. We play with emotion and adrenaline. We've just got to make sure it's positive emotion."

He'll be the source of Denver's emotion for Game 5 on Wednesday. But just as with his shooting, you never know whether it will be positive or negative.

J.A. Adande is an ESPN.com senior writer and the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." Click here to e-mail J.A.