Faith rewarded: J.R. starting to pay dividends for Lue

J.R. Smith of the Cavaliers has begun to reward Tyronn Lue for sticking with him, despite his struggles this season.

Been there, done that.

Does that lead to, “will do again?”

Tyronn Lue is betting on it and, judging on the latest returns, it very well pay huge dividends.

The Cleveland Cavaliers coach said the reason he’s stuck with J.R. Smith through his many struggles this season stems from what the veteran shooting guard did in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals against Golden State.

“If it wasn’t for J.R. in ’16 making those eight straight points coming out in the third quarter, we don’t win the championship,” Lue told reporters after practice Monday in preparation for tonight’s game in Oklahoma City against the Thunder. “People saying, ‘quit on J.R., give up on J.R.’

“It’s not right.”

In the aforementioned winner-take-all game at Oracle Arena, with Golden State leading by as many as eight points in the first two and a half minutes of the third quarter.

It was Smith, not LeBron James, Kyrie Irving nor Kevin Love, who kept the Cavaliers in it during that stretch. He scored eight points in the first 2:30 of the second half, something Lue has never forgotten and for which he will always tend to give the enigmatic Smith the benefit of the doubt.

Despite the fact Smith has averaged 8.3 points per game this season, shooting just 36.7 percent from 3 and lugging a career-worst defensive rating of 112.7.

However, his play is trending up as he scored 15 points, shooting 6-of-7 from the floor, in the Cavaliers 121-99 taking apart of the Boston Celtics on Sunday at TD Garden. Smith matched his own career-best for a single-game field-goal percentage in a game where he takes at least five shots, 85.7.

He also posterized Boston big man Aron Baynes, then stared him down when he was finished.

“Sometimes, your shot is going to come and go, that’s just part of the game,” Lue said. “For the most part, his effort is there every night. That’s why I wanted to stick with J.R. and I don’t want to lose J.R. Make sure keep him in good spirits, going in the right direction. He’s big for us. When he’s making shots, when he’s being aggressive, our team is a whole different team.”

Smith has been doing that of late, averaging 13.2 points per game while shooting 51.5 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.

Coincidence, or not, the Cavaliers (33-22) have won three consecutive games, doing so for the first time since Dec. 14-17.

Still, Smith’s name was tossed around freely on he NBA’s rumor mill leading up to the deadline, including reportedly being offered to the Los Angeles Clippers in a swap for center DeAndre Jordan, a deal that never came to fruition.

He admitted he was concerned about being traded, saying it was the first time he’s heard his name mentioned in possible deals since the Cavaliers acquired him and Iman Shumpert from the New York Knicks in January 2015.

“Regardless if you come or go or whatever the situation is, you always want to play better,” Smith said. “That was my main focus, just playing better.”

Now that he’s doing exactly that, and with the roster retooling general manager Koby Altman, assistant GM Mike Gansey and owner Dan Gilbert pulled off making his job on the defensive end much simpler, Smith is ready to roll.

Before Irving was traded to Boston, and then when that Aug. 22 deal brought Isaiah Thomas to Cleveland, Smith was frequently tasked with multiple responsibilities on the defensive end in an attempt to hide the defensive issues of Irving and Thomas.

Now, though, with the newly acquired 6-foot-3 George Hill, he of the almost-7 foot wing span, installed as the Cavaliers’ starting point guard, Smith’s role on D is much more defined.

“Fortunate we have stability to where we play a team like OKC coming up, where I can focus on my position, and who’s at my position, as opposed to switching over and guarding the 1s, the 2s, the 3s,” Smith said. “Obviously, we got a helluva point guard in George who can guard 1, 2 and 3.

“It’s not really I’ve got to switch out of position to guard his guy, he likes to post up. I really get to guard the 2s.”

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