J.R. Smith's quiet renaissance

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport

Love him or hate him (and right now, you probably hate him), J.R. is starting to resemble the J.R. of old.

Excuse me for a moment while I put on my homemade Skip Bayless mask -- I fashioned it out of an old catcher's mitt -- and scald your eyeballs with this molten-hot Knicks take:

J.R. Smith has played pretty well recently.

Look, somebody had to say it. The...umm...mercurial?...shooting guard has had a tumultuous season, to say the least. I will not waste time by running through his laundry list of crimes against both basketball and humanity (Is he selling pandas on the black market? Can you prove he isn't?)

But the now-familiar cries of "Goddammit, J.R.!" have been heard with less frequency over the past two weeks -- from teammates and from fans.. Believe it or not, over his past eight games, Smith's numbers look downright good.

G MP FG% 3P% RB AST TO PTS
8 31.4 .459 .447 3.4 2.8 1.0

14.9

Why eight games? Because that is the number of games Smith has played since he was benched against the Miami Heat. In the four games leading up to the benching, Smith was shooting at an embarrassing 31.3 FG%/ 18.8 3P% clip (and all four of those games were with Carmelo Anthony back in the lineup).

We don't know if Mike Woodson was trying to send a message with the benching, or what message he was trying to send, or if Smith was ever paying attention. Smith did come back to play two efficient games following the Miami benching, only to be benched again on the second night of a back-to-back. Since "The Benching: Part Deux," Smith has played six more games, and played well.

Now, if Smith were a normal player -- and the Knicks a normal franchise -- his early-season struggles could be placed into context fairly easily. After all, he did undergo knee surgery in the offseason, and didn't see preseason action until the final game before the opener. In many ways, Smith is playing like a guy coming off knee surgery -- he doesn't have the same level of explosiveness he had last season, he seems hesitant when driving to the basket, and his shot is off.

But his shooting percentages have been trending upward for three straight months:

G FG% 3P% FT% TS%
November 10 .328 .286 .591 .416
December 15 .368 .398 .611 .482
January 12 .423 .370 .625 .516

Smith still isn't completely recovered from the injury. His rebounding numbers are down, and he still isn't driving as much as he did during his best stretches of 2012-13. But he looks a hell of a lot better than he did in November.

New York suffered through a similar post-knee surgery comeback last season from Iman Shumpert, who needed months of game action to get right. But last year's team already had plenty of wins in the bag, and numerous players to step up while Shumpert struggled (like J.R. Smith!). Most importantly, injured Iman Shumpert didn't turn his off-court relationship with the team into a freakin' incestuous Greek farce. This season's team has none of those features. Nobody has stepped up to help relieve Smith's scoring burden, and the Knicks will be scrambling for wins the rest of the season.

If the Knicks are going to make a run at a playoff berth, they are going to need J.R. Smith. He might not be the most reliable option, but he's pretty much the only option left. He's already starting to look more like the J.R. of last year...and just in the nick of time.

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