CLEVELAND -- J.R. Smith played it all cool and professional, sitting on the postgame podium next to LeBron James after the most meaningful performance of his career as midnight passed Thursday morning.
As if he'd been there dozens of times. As if he hadn't been shooting a woeful 31 percent in eight Finals games against the Golden State Warriors over the past two years. As if his 20-point Game 3 wasn't a giant answer to those who claimed he couldn't deliver in this sort of clutch situation. As if he didn't show up at his first Finals last year riding a hoverboard.
As if he hadn't been daydreaming about these moments -- sitting next to James basking in success after a huge Finals win -- for years.
"I feel like my story would've been different had I had a chance to play with Bron when I was 18," Smith said. "I've thought about it countless times."
Twelve years ago this week Smith was in this same building, then called Gund Arena, when he first thought of playing with James. The draft was a couple weeks away and he was in town to work out for the Cavs as they considered who to draft with the 10th overall pick. Coming out of high school, he thought he was the type of dynamic scorer who could play and grow next to James.
He thought the workout went great. He had good conversations with then-coach Paul Silas. He started to get used to the idea of playing in Cleveland. But when draft night came the Cavs took a four-year college player, Luke Jackson from Oregon, because they didn't think it was wise to have two teenagers on their roster.
"I'm not upset about my career, I'm just upset about how my name has been portrayed," Smith said. "A lot of guys have played with Bron and had success. There's nothing I can do about it. I've tried to change my image a million times."
Yes, the image. The suspensions. The off-court trouble. The partying. The feuds with coaches. Smith has been waging a battle with his reputation for nearly as long as he has been thinking about wearing the same uniform as James.
Rarely has it stung, though, like it did last summer. As the days in July melted away, Smith saw the same Twitter feeds and read the Bottom Line on ESPN just like millions of NBA fans. He saw the names, he saw the millions.
Jimmy Butler, max contract. Khris Middleton, $70 million. DeMarre Carroll, $58 million. Wes Matthews, $70 million. Arron Afflalo, $8 million a year. Marco Belinelli, $6.1 million a year. Corey Brewer, $7.8 million a year. Al-Farouq Aminu, $7.5 million a year.
Iman Shumpert, his friend and teammate with both the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers: four years, $40 million within the first 18 hours of free agency to stay in Cleveland.
But for Smith, who opted out of a $6 million contract to become a free agent after a strong second half of last season, the phones weren't quite so hot. That reputation combined with a suspension in the playoffs and a poor Finals had chilled his market.
"The market was going crazy, I mean it was ridiculous," Smith said. "You see so many people getting paid. I started to look at myself in the mirror and was like, 'Damn, am I really what everybody saying I am? Am I really a cancer?' We'd just gotten to the Finals and I'm not trying to toot my horn, but I thought I'd had a major part in that."
"I said, 'Baby that's a sacrifice you're going to have to make. If you want some new toys, you have give some,'" Smith said. "She looked at me and said, 'Daddy, what are you going to sacrifice?' I was like, wow. I had to think about it. What was I sacrificing?"J.R. Smith
Eventually, after months of waiting, Smith came back to the Cavs at a pay cut without much security. One year plus a non-guaranteed second year. This was a blow not just to the bank account but the ego.
This was one of three things that happened to Smith last year that seem to have adjusted the way he looks at the world. It can be dangerous to declare Smith a changed man because that proclamation has been made before only to set up another setback or disappointment.
Smith rarely has bad intentions, people who know him will say, but he doesn't always have the best judgment. But he's working on it.
Last year, Smith made a pretty big decision to elope with his longtime on-again, off-again girlfriend, Jewel. The couple have a daughter, Demi. Even those who knew Smith were surprised when the well-known ladies' man during his years with the Knicks suddenly settled down.
"When you're in New York there's women galore. At the end of the day, when I'm by myself or even at times when there was a woman next to me I was feeling alone," Smith said. "It was not the same as it is with my wife. The experience is not the same, the time is not the same. My daughter is 7 years old and I was on the outside looking in. She couldn't live with me. After I got traded, I couldn't pick her up from school because she's in Jersey and I'm in Cleveland.
"My dad used to say, 'When you're ready to get married, you'll know.' I'm like whatever, everyone says that. A lot of things my dad said growing up didn't make sense to me, not even a clue. He used to say, 'There's a time and place for everything.' But I was like when is the time and place? I was 18 years old when I came to the league, I got a pocket full of money. I've got cars. I've got females. I'm like what's the time and place? Slowly but surely, I'm starting to get it."
As James, who has known Smith since they played on the AAU and camp circuit together, said: "J.R. was ready to make some changes to his personal goals."
Which is where the third event comes in. This one came out of nowhere but it leveled Smith to the point where he still talks about the moment with a faraway look in his eye.
Before last season, Smith was rounding up some of his daughter's toys despite her objections. Smith wanted to donate the toys she no longer played with to charity.
"She said, 'I don't want to give away these toys.' I said, 'Baby, that's a sacrifice you're going to have to make. If you want some new toys, you have give some,'" Smith said. "She looked at me and said, 'Daddy what are you going to sacrifice?' I was like, wow. I had to think about it. What was I sacrificing?"
Smith considered it for a few days before starting to understand what he was reacting to. A famous gunner who once declared "open shots are boring" to explain why he often takes what can seem like irrational shots, Smith decided this question from his daughter was some sort of calling compelling him to start to care about defense.
"She didn't even know what she did," Smith said. "I always talked about playing good defense but I never did it. It always turned into if I played well on offense, I felt I did a good job. This year I decided I was going to let how I played defense dictate how I played.
"So I started watching film of defensive players like Tony Allen. I've watched a lot of film of Kobe [Bryant] when he was younger to watch what he did with his hands, like how he'd swipe up not swipe down. Would I have ever done that before this season? Absolutely not. I'd go on YouTube and watch [Allen] Iverson, [Michael] Jordan, Kobe; all highlights.
"Before this year, if you caught me in the summer and asked me questions like what are you going to do on pick-the-picker or backside rotations, I'd have been like, um, what?"
Earlier this season, Cavs coach Ty Lue raised eyebrows when he said Smith had developed into the Cavs' best defensive player. Shumpert, whom the Cavs had paid with the intention to be their starting shooting guard, lost the starting job to Smith because he was so consistent.
During the playoffs Smith has been more focused on defense than ever. He helped smother Atlanta Hawks sharpshooter Kyle Korver in the second round. Thus far, he's making Klay Thompson work during the Finals. Though it's all a team effort, Thompson is shooting just 37 percent and averaging just 12 points in the Finals as Smith acts as his primary defender.
Smith swears these are the only results he cares about any more, what the player he guards does. In Game 1 he took just three shots, the fewest in his career when playing more than 30 minutes. He was given ample opportunity to complain about the total and in the past he may have swung hard at that low-hanging fruit.
Will this new-look Smith -- the defender, the low-key news conference attendee, the family man -- really last? Will he be the type of player the Cavs or another team will trust to give the big contract to this summer?
He's doing his best to keep his promise to himself and it's leading to a version of himself that has proved to be valuable to the Cavs. And he's still trying to learn to see the world in a different way.
"You know Coach Lue always amazed me," Smith said. "I'm like how do you have this much joy coming out of life? You have money but you don't drink, you don't smoke, all you do is hoop and you live on a natural high. But now I know. All he did was win. He was sitting on championship rings, that's how he did it. That's why I need one so I can sit on that natural high."