LeBron James made the single biggest defensive play in Game 5 for the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night.
However, the guy who played the most important role on that side of the floor for the entire game did not score a single point.
J.R. Smith, who played 33 minutes and missed all eight shots he took (including 0-for-6 from deep), spent his time chasing Pacers All-Star Victor Oladipo all over the floor in Cleveland’s 98-95 win.
Hounded by Smith, Oladipo shot just 2-of-15 and finished with 12 points.
And while James’ block (goaltend?) on Oladipo with three seconds to play set up James’ subsequent game-winner, Smith, who grabbed the rebound after James’ block and alertly called timeout, was singled out for his defensive effort, by none other than James.
“J.R. was fantastic,” James said. “Just trying to make Oladipo feel him out on the floor. Make it tough on him. I mean, Oladipo is an All-Star for a reason and he puts so much pressure on your defense.
“So for J.R. to take the challenge, we just try to be his eyes and ears behind him. Because when you’re playing on the ball, sometimes you don’t know what’s going on behind you — a lot of times you don’t know what’s going on behind you. And that sort of communication has to be at an all-time high. And we just try to make it where like we say, we can be his rearview.”
While known for his 3-point shooting, Smith transformed himself into a solid defender once he arrived in Cleveland. He struggled on both ends of the floor throughout an inconsistent regular season, during which he was one of the NBA’s worst defensive players going by the numbers, Smith has stepped up in the playoffs.
“Second half, I thought defensively J.R. was good,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “He was a little mad at himself in the first half because he missed some open shots. But if he is playing defense like he did on Victor — what’d he finish with? — 2-of-15, 12 points then we’ll take that. We relied on our defense tonight and did a good job.”
In the first half, Oladipo was able to shed Smith’s shadow and got some open looks, though he missed them. Still, Indiana scored 56 points, meaning if Oladipo caught fire, the Cavaliers, who trailed at the break, 56-49, would’ve been in big trouble if Oladipo got it going.
Challenged by Lue in the locker room, Smith got back on track in the third quarter, locking down Oladipo and allowing the Cleveland to put together a 17-3 surge to take the lead.
“Just tried to be more physical, stay on his body more, as much as possible,” Smith said. “Whenever he’s not in the scoring area, just trying to deny him the ball and make it tough.”
Oladipo lit up the Cavaliers in Game 1, scoring 32 points on 11-of-19 shooting in leading Indiana to a 98-80 win.
With Cleveland making slowing Oladipo its main defensive focus — with Smith at the fore — Oladipo has struggled, especially in the last three games.
In Games 3, 4 and 5, Oladipo shot 24.0 percent (12 of 50), including 5-of-23 from beyond the 3-point line (21.7 percent).
With the outcome of a pivotal Game 5 on the line, the only shot Oladipo took in the final eight minutes of the game was the one James denied in the final seconds.
“But he’s been great the last … he’s been great in the series, period, defensively,” James said of Smith. “And I told him after the game, ‘Listen, every shot that you took tonight, I felt like they were going in.’ He had some really, really good looks but he never let that get to interfere with the defensive side and he was great.”