On a certain level, J.R. Smith has come a long way as a crunch-time option over the past 10 months. He blew a tied game in Houston in January because he thought the New York Knicks were actually down two points, an error prompting him to fire up a wayward 3-pointer with 20 seconds left rather than hold the ball for the last shot.
This time around, Smith at least had a firm grasp of the score and the clock when he let go of his 27-footer while Carmelo Anthony stood to the side with his arms out and palms turned skyward, striking a pose reminiscent of Bud Selig's at the end of that tied All-Star Game way back when.
If you get a chance to play back the video of Wednesday night's final sequence, right after Pablo Prigioni inbounded to Smith with 3.5 seconds left in Orlando's 97-95 victory, stop the action at the 2.6-second mark. In that frame you see the moment Smith made his fateful choice in his team's sixth consecutive defeat.
Prigioni had cleared out his defender, Elfrid Payton, whose head was turned away from the ball. Anthony had his left arm extended on the wing, calling for the pass while sealing off rookie Aaron Gordon with his right arm. Smith was looking at Anthony while the Magic defender guarding the ball, Evan Fournier, was briefly overplaying Smith to his left and giving him a clear passing lane to Melo.
The pass was the right play, of course, because Anthony is the $124 million superstar more than capable of making the catch with two seconds left, squaring his body and freezing the rookie, and then rising up with that quick-as-Dan Marino release of his and getting the desired look.
But Smith's choice to rely on his own pull-up jumper that crashed amateurishly off the glass and sent Anthony on a dejected march off the court was hardly the worst decision he's ever made, even if Melo was 10-for-17 from the floor (Smith would finish 6-for-16) and had just made a 3. In fact, given that Smith drained a couple of big shots in between his selfish and insubordinate acts over the years, this bad call wouldn't make his personal bottom 10 during his time in New York.
So more than anything else, the scene served as a mere reminder that the Knicks need to get rid of Smith sooner rather than later, and that nobody will take Phil Jackson's culture change too seriously as long as the shooting guard is part of the culture.
If Jackson's out there trying to trade Smith, he's not trying hard enough. The Knicks' president doesn't have to convince 29 teams that Smith is a gamble worth taking; he needs to convince only one.
"J.R. has had a lot of issues but he can be a big-time scorer when he's doing the right things," said one high-ranking league executive. "There's always a team out there willing to take a chance on somebody if they feel he can put them over the top, and there's no doubt J.R. can play. People are going to be concerned about chemistry issues in the locker room, so it would have to be a strong leadership and coaching staff that take him in."
Smith is 29, in his prime, banking nearly $6 million this season with a $6.4 million player option for next year. Older and lesser players with more forbidding contracts have been dealt before.
Already burdened by a losing team and a disconnect between the newbies and his cherished triangle offense, Jackson said he wanted to know by the holidays which Knicks qualify as learners, and which do not. He doesn't need to wait to find out about Smith, who answered Jackson's question before it was asked with this hard-to-believe quote:
"Trying to think about the rest of the team over myself or my scoring is something that I never really had to do before."
Smith is the ultimate square peg that's never fitting into selfless triangular concepts, and his résumé of misdeeds says it all. The elbow to Jason Terry that cost the Knicks dearly in the 2013 playoffs. The inappropriate tweets. The five-game drug suspension. The shoelace thing. The headband thing. The Rihanna partying thing. The night he staged a boycott and refused to shoot. The time he suggested the Knicks betrayed him by cutting his brother Chris, who didn't deserve a roster spot to begin with.
Smith spent a lot of time and energy disrespecting Mike Woodson, and unwittingly called into question Anthony's leadership as well. If a franchise player can't impose his will on a supplemental piece gone awry, is he really a franchise player?
Jackson did Melo a solid by trading Raymond Felton, a bad actor and worse point guard, and by replacing him with Jose Calderon, who needs to get healthy soon. But in the name of improving team harmony, Jackson erred in the same deal by shipping out Tyson Chandler, a longtime grinder and achiever whose one NBA crime was deciding last season -- and not incorrectly -- that Woodson was overmatched to the nth degree.
Jackson saw the big man as a necessary sacrifice to make Felton disappear, but so far Chandler-for-Samuel Dalembert has been a Hollywood-sized bust. At least Dalembert is coming off the books at season's end; the same can't be said of Smith, assuming he exercises his option. Jackson inherited that option, and now he has to make it someone else's problem.
At practice Thursday, Smith was Derek Fisher's problem. As much as Jackson's coach defended the spirit of Smith's endgame decision against Orlando, and as much as he reminded that the Steve Kerrs and Robert Horrys and John Paxsons (and Derek Fishers, of course) sometimes took the big shots instead of the MJs and Kobes and Shaqs, Fisher conceded that Smith didn't make the proper read.
"But we cleaned some of that up today in terms of understanding what we want on that sequence," Fisher said, "and I think that will help not just J.R., but all of our guys the next time we're in that spot."
Before meeting with the news media, Fisher huddled with assistants Kurt Rambis and Jim Cleamons while standing on the practice-court spot that approximated where Anthony stood on the Garden floor against Orlando, calling in vain for the ball. Fisher made some subtle turns and moves as if he were acting out a play.
"It just wasn't as high a percentage a shot as we would like to get in that situation," he said of Smith's launch.
Neither the shooting guard nor Anthony was made available to reporters a day after the Knicks lost at home to a 2-6 team that was playing for the second time in two nights. Wednesday night, Anthony said he wanted the ball but that Smith had an open shot. "Or thought he had an open shot," he added.
Everyone expected these growing pains with Fisher and the Knicks and Jackson's triangle, and the absences of Calderon and Andrea Bargnani sure haven't helped. But growing pains signal growth to come, and J.R. Smith isn't going to get better, or more team-centric.
He is who he is, and Phil Jackson shouldn't wait for the holidays to decide that isn't good enough.