Trailing by seven on the road and 12 minutes away from facing a likely insurmountable 3-1 series deficit to the Bulls, the Cavaliers were looking for any kind of spark.
And already playing without Kevin Love, the options looked bleak for David Blatt's group. LeBron James had two more field goal (7) than he did turnovers (5). Kyrie Irving had been a non-factor dealing with a right foot strain. Iman Shumpert had gone 1-for-6 from the field, and big men Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov, though efficient, weren't primary options against a Pau Gasol-less Bulls frontcourt.
So with their backs against the wall and little momentum on their side in front of a sold out United Center, the Cavaliers dialed up their streakiest shooter.
"We got J.R. Smith for the 9-1-1 situations," Iman Shumpert said with a laugh. "Thank God for J.R. Smith."
Smith responded with his best performance of the series, scoring 11 of his 13 points in the final quarter to help Cleveland overcome that deficit before James connected on a buzzer-beater to even the series with an 86-84 victory.
The reserve guard, who was suspended for Games 1 and 2, had only played 24 minutes through three quarters as Blatt searched for defensive matchups to hide the ailing Irving. With Irving unable to guard Derrick Rose, that shifted the responsibility of defending the Game 3 hero to Shumpert, with James defending Jimmy Butler and Irving matched up on Mike Dunleavy or Kirk Hinrich.
But after the Cavaliers shot just 5-for-20 in the third quarter, including four misses from Smith, Blatt opted for a smaller lineup that included Smith. He connected on his first attempt, a step back jumper over the outstretched arm of Nikola Mirotic to cut the deficit to five. After a pair of Mozgov free throws Smith drained a 3-pointer to tie the game at 68 and cap off an 11-0 Cavs run.
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Shortly after he connected on back-to-back triples that pushed the Cavs' lead to three as part of a 23-5 run that had Cleveland out in front by seven with 4 minutes to play. And though the Bulls came charging back to tie the game with 9 second left before James' heroics, Smith's perfect 4-for-4 shooting in the quarter gave the Cavaliers that second scorer that Irving, in his limited state, weren't able to provide. Smith's timely shooting came on an afternoon when the Cavaliers went 5-for-25 from beyond the 3-point line, including just 2 of 19 in the first three quarters. Smith was 0-for-3 from deep at that point, but it didn't sway him against continuing to find his shot.
"I just keep shooting, regardless. I could’ve gone 0-for-15 in the first half, came out in the second half and still going to shoot," Smith said after the game. "That’s just who I am. Getting good looks, teammates finding me and I’ve just got to make shots. This is a series where (the Bulls) like to pack it in, so in those situations you’ve got to come up big."
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Smith will play a large role in the series' final two or three games. With Irving hobbled the Cavaliers will look to Smith and his streaky shooting to act as a second option offensively. It's a position he's comfortable with, and he showed off his ability to hit in clutch moments after his 3-pointer in the closing seconds of Game 3 tied things up. That supporting cast will look to complement James as best they can, in hopes of not having the four-time MVP shoot 30 times a game like he did Sunday afternoon.
"I think that’s our job," Smith admitted. "Myself, (Shumpert), everybody else, we’ve got to chip in some way and somehow, whether it’s shots, steals, rebounds, loose balls, whatever. So much pressure is put on those guys’ shoulders, we’ve got to do whatever we can to lift it off a little bit."
Sunday Smith provided that lift, and it may have saved the series.