GREENBURGH, N.Y. — J.R. Smith was unhappy when it all started. As coach Mike Woodson said, there was “a lot of grumbling.”
In Smith’s mind, he was going to be the starting shooting guard for the Knicks this season. In his coach’s mind, that wasn’t going to happen.
Smith accepted it, finally, begrudgingly, becoming the scorer the Knicks needed off the bench, averaging 18.1 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, leading all NBA reserves in scoring. After a while, Woodson said, it ceased to be an issue. Smith didn’t question it. He just played.
And he was rewarded, not just with a spot in the playoffs, in which the Knicks got the second seed in the Eastern Conference and a matchup with the Celtics. Smith also was rewarded with the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award, handed out Monday at the Knicks’ practice facility. The entire team, along with staff, watched as he accepted the trophy.
“I’m speechless. I can’t really put this into words,” Smith said. “It’s been a long time coming. It’s not always about points. It’s more about team.”
Smith received 484 of a possible 1,084 points, including 72 first-place votes, from a panel of writers and broadcasters, after having the best season of his career. The Clippers’ Jamal Crawford finished second with 352 points.
“He bought in,” Woodson said. “Didn’t like it at first, but he accepted his role and he walks away with the Sixth Man Award. So it all worked out.”
From all accounts, it appears that Smith has changed his ways this season. He has become more mature in his ninth season in the league, more attuned to what his team needs. He has grown, and that has helped the Knicks get to this point, as he has learned to keep his head on the court, as he put it.
“He’s cleaned up a lot of things,” Woodson said. “I think it’s a thing of getting older and realizing that this is really a short-lived career. Guys think you’re going to play forever. You’re not going to play this game forever.
“He took advantage of what was in front of him. That was a challenge because he wanted to start, and I just wouldn’t let him.”
Woodson added, “It’s not just winning an award. It’s the team winning as a whole. We’ve done that.”
The Knicks hope Smith is as a significant factor in Game 2 Tuesday night in New York as he was in Saturday’s night’s Game 1 win over the Celtics, with 15 points in 32 minutes off the bench. He was second on the team in scoring behind Carmelo Anthony’s 36 points, and added five rebounds and two steals.
“I’m so proud of him,” Tyson Chandler said. “He dedicated himself this year. It’s great to see. He’s focused. He’s really focused and locked in this year. You can see it. He’s much more focused on his craft.”
Said Kenyon Martin, “He’s attacking the basket. He’s not settling for the jumper.”
He has come on time, Chandler added. He has stayed late. He has learned that by going to the basket, by getting to the free throw line, he can improve his game. He has, as Woodson said, evolved.
And all that work has paid off.
“You like to see that, when somebody dedicates themselves the way they’re supposed to, it’s good to see things work out,” Chandler said. “Something clicked, and it’s been a world of a difference for our team. Himself and Melo, they put so much pressure on the defense.”
But it didn’t always seem like it was the best decision, though. As the Knicks struggled through a series of injuries, Woodson left Smith out of the starting lineup, kept him on the bench. Smith didn’t argue.
“I just thought, for our team, you need to establish guys coming off the bench to be able to make plays,” said Woodson, who averaged 18.2 points per game off the bench for the 1982-83 Kansas City Kings. “It doesn’t matter who starts. It’s who finishes the game.”
. . .
Chandler, who came back for Game 1 after missing six games with a bulging disk in his neck, said his conditioning was a factor in the first game of the series. He didn’t play in the fourth quarter, ceding his minutes to Martin. “The more I’m on the floor, the better I’m going to get, my rhythm, my legs,” he said. “I feel like I’ll be better in Game 2 than I was in Game 1.” He said he was a “little stiff, a little sore” after Saturday’s game . . . Woodson said Pablo Prigioni “looked good” after he missed Game 1 with a sprained right ankle. If Prigioni plays Tuesday night, he’ll start. If that happens, Raymond Felton will get a difficult defensive assignment, guarding Paul Pierce. That’s what the Knicks did in the last two regular-season games against the Celtics. “He’s got to be tough,” Woodson said. “That’s all I can tell you. Good luck.”