David Jacoby of Grantland isn't buying it.
He does not believe that an elbow that led to his ejection and suspension almost three weeks ago is the cause of or the reason for what has become known as "The Fall of J.R. Smith."
Bill Simmons and I try to explain to him that it is. To find middle ground in the disagreement, Simmons uses the word "catalyst" to differentiate between "the reason why" and "what caused" the spiral.
Then came the perfect analogy.
Poker. What J.R. Smith is going through, we tell him, is very similar to what happens to a hot poker player who finally loses a hand. Once it happens, there are myriad unexplainable things that chain react and cause the player to suddenly lose hand after hand after hand. And once the losing doesn't stop, there is nothing the player can physically or mentally do to change the direction of his fate.
It's out of his hands, out of his control. That player is at the mercy of a higher power: the dealer.
Smith's dealer right now is God.
That is the reason he tends to look "up" so often when he goes through stints of offensive failure like the epic one he seems to be going through at this moment. While it is understood by most that we all answer to God, right now Smith is looking to God for answers.
"Why?" "Why me?" "Why now?!?"
His six-game, 26-for-91 (10-for-37 from 3) free fall can only be made less obscure by the eight-game scoreless streak being experienced by teammate Jason Kidd, the fact that he and Carmelo Anthony have only five assists between them in the three losses of this series, and that Indiana's Roy Hibbert is having a coming-out party on Tyson Chandler.
Playing for New York in the Eastern Conference semis is not the time or place that any player wants his game to abandon him. Especially when the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award he just received confirms that the team and the, what, 10 million-plus win-or-die Knicks fans spread across the five boroughs and the metro area are depending on him to Scottie Pippen Carmelo's Michael Jordan.
(More accurate, to Vinnie Johnson Melo's Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. To Huck his Olivia Pope.)
But this is J.R. Smith we are talking about. These things happen. His whole career -- all he's done, all he's self-inflicted -- can be condensed to this moment. It's almost as if he were predestined to find himself in this exact place at this exact time.
Which is why his post-Game 4 "I take the blame for this whole series" repentance was so ... so ... def.
Humbling. That would be the better word choice. To finally see Smith in an extended humbled state would have been a thing of beauty if the circumstances weren't so bad or recurring. Until Tuesday night, it was hard to feel sorry for him. His cavalierness, immaturity and undisguisable arrogance seemed to get in the way of anyone believing that he actually had it in him to reach this point of self-awareness.
Just when it seemed like he'd finally turned his life (and career) around this season, having survived a January setback that had the city of New York hoping that his "back to his old self" play and behavior was temporary, Smith returned from the first round one-game suspension seemingly unfocused, uncaring and with nonstop rumors floating around about public extracurricular late-night activities with Rihanna.
Magic Johnson called him out, which led to further speculation that the "bad" Smith had returned for the duration, which then led to people wondering if the reported 102-degree temperature and flu symptoms that were causing him to miss multiple practices was real, which then led to him losing damn near all benefit of doubt.
Yet he stood there. Microphones in his face. Eyes clear, soul open. Answering all questions, taking all blame. Smith's "man up" moment had arrived, and he did just that: He manned up.
This usually is the first step toward forgiveness, but not always understanding. See -- and I've used this before in reference to Smith -- God has a way of answering questions first and prayers later. When certain people "still don't seem to get it," the ebb tends to outweigh the flow. We Knicks fans can only hope that God heard Smith's locker room comments after the Game 4 loss, because His forgiveness may be secondary to the answers and understanding Smith is in search of.
Because just like a poker player whose "luck" has run out, the re-Rise of Smith is out of his hands. There's nothing Smith can physically or mentally do to change course. Although (as Steve Smith and Larry Drew said on NBA TV) there are "other little things" that Smith can do -- rebound, concentrate more on the defensive end, assist in ball movement, etc. -- besides score to help his team, the assurance of the return of what he does best and what the Knicks need him for is not in his power. He can own the responsibility of the Knicks being down 3-1 in this series, but he can't own what happens next.
The only hope here is the soul search -- the sole responsibility of a flawed and struggling athlete to discover where it went wrong and why it went wrong.
For Smith, it could be the elbow. It could be that one moment of stupidity was the catalyst for everything that has happened to him since in these playoffs. Maybe that's what was going through his mind as he walked off the Pacers court listening to his enemies cheer. Maybe that's what led him to that mature moment of clarity, lucidity and transparency.
Or it could just be a coincidence.
The conflict and complication with being whoever J.R. Smith seems or wants to be is that there may never be an answer. Only a higher power knows the hand he's about to be dealt.