NEW YORK -- Pablo Prigioni starts ahead of J.R. Smith, and you do not need a sixth sense to understand why the sixth man would be annoyed by that. By any measure of size, speed, scoring ability and athleticism, Prigioni does not belong on the same planet with Smith, never mind on the same team.
It doesn't matter that Celtics coach Doc Rivers practically put Prigioni in Bob Cousy's class before Game 2, calling him "brilliant, another Jason Kidd-ish type guy." It doesn't matter that basketball people are forever reminding us we should focus on who finishes games, not on who starts them.
Deep down, J.R. Smith wants to start just like every basketball player from Biddie Ball on up wants to start. It's a basic human desire. If a coach is sending out five guys for the opening tip, you don't want to be No. 6 on his depth chart.
Tuesday night, after he held high his NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award before a standing, cheering Garden crowd, after he scored 19 impactful points in an 87-71 victory over Boston that gave his New York Knicks a 2-0 series lead, Smith was asked if he struggled with the fact his coach, Mike Woodson, was putting less talented teammates on the floor before summoning him from the pine.
"I've gotten over that situation," Smith said. "There's a reason why guys are out there on the floor, a reason why Coach Woodson is doing what he's doing. It's been effective. If we were losing, I'm sure it would be a different story, but we're playing great right now, so I can't complain."
Yes, if the Knicks were losing, it would be an entirely different story -- that was the open window on Smith's soul. If the Knicks were losing, Smith might be lighting up reporters' notebooks, and he might be tweeting things about Woodson he'd later regret. If the Knicks were losing, Smith might be voted this year's Knick Most Likely to Punch a Fire Extinguisher Case, if only because Amar'e Stoudemire isn't around to beat him to it.
But the Knicks aren't losing, not yet, anyway. They're making the Celtics look small and slow and remarkably limited on the offensive end, where Paul Pierce, the great Paul Pierce, stumbles and bumbles to the basket and looks older than Uncle Drew.
It's hard to picture the second seed losing four of five to these Celtics, unless, of course, Rick Pitino was wrong and Bird, McHale and Parish do indeed walk through that door. The Knicks outscored Boston 32-11 in a third quarter that saw Carmelo Anthony score 13 of his 34 points, and that was that.
Anthony is too young and hungry right now for Pierce and Kevin Garnett, who desperately need a healthy Rajon Rondo to create plays that the Avery Bradleys and Jordan Crawfords and Courtney Lees simply can't create. But the Knicks aren't out to merely beat Boston in the first round. Melo will score 35 just about every postseason night, but if they want to beat Miami and win their first title since 1973, they'll need a Robin for Melo's Batman.
J.R. Smith has to be that Robin. He shot 50 percent or better from the field in 25 regular-season games, and the Knicks won 22 of them. Tuesday night, Smith finished a tick below that standard by going 7-for-15, and nobody was moved to complain. He put on a show by making all four of his attempts in the first quarter, including a wild 36-footer to beat the buzzer, a basket that inspired him to drop to a knee and swing his right arm in windmill form three times as if he were a rock star ready to jam on his guitar.
"It's a great feeling to have the Sixth Man of the Year on your team. That's the way we need him to play at all times, not just tonight. We need him to be on his game in order for us to be successful."
Martin said what Melo wouldn't. Asked if he was confident Smith could assume the role of consistent complementary star during a championship run, Anthony said he's focusing solely on Friday night's Game 3 in Boston and didn't say a word about his super-sub. No sweat.
The significance of Smith is obvious, precisely why Woodson has talked in the past of making him more responsible, more professional, even more presentable. Woodson has urged Smith to pull up his pants and act the part. There's been slippage; the league fined Smith for his tweeted photo of an almost-bare-naked lady. But all in all, despite a few unforced errors on Twitter, most agree the 27-year-old Smith has grown up some under Woodson.
"I'm not surprised," Smith's high school coach at St. Benedict's of Newark, N.J., Dan Hurley, said Tuesday night by phone. "He was drafted by New Orleans when they weren't a good team, more of an expansion-type team, and then in Denver there were all those personalities around J.R. Now he's finally in a place with some real professionals like Kidd and Chandler, and that's helped him."
Now the head coach at the University of Rhode Island, Hurley met with Smith at the St. Benedict's gym every morning at 5:30 for two hours of work before classes, and again after school was out, to prepare him for the 2004 McDonald's All-American game (Smith would be named co-MVP) that got him drafted in the first round.
"He never cheated me or himself one day in the gym, ever," Hurley said. "You'd question shot selection, but never his passion or intensity. He's one of the most talented athletes and players in the history of the state, and every time you went to see him play, he gave you your money's worth."
Smith was worth the price of admission again Tuesday night after he received his award and his ovation. "It was an out-of-body feeling," he said of the pregame ceremony. "I never really thought I would get a standing ovation at the Garden the way I did."
He later admitted that he didn't want to come off the bench to start the season and that he eventually came to terms with his role. So far this postseason, so good. The Knicks are winning, and J.R. isn't whining.
But this time last year, after his dreadful performance in the first round against Miami, Smith tweeted that he wasn't sure he wanted to return to New York, this after some fans had blamed him for the loss. Now he's talking about retiring happily ever after as a Knick.
So be it. If Smith can be as hard to decipher as some of his tattoos, this much is clear:
The sixth man has to play like the second man from here to June, or the entire season will end up on the bench.