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J.R. the key to the Knicks' journey through the playoffs

JAIME C. HARRIS Special to the AmNews | 5/6/2013, 4:29 p.m.
J.R. the key to the Knicks' journey through the playoffs

Remain focused. Temper harmful emotions. Exude professionalism both on and off the court. These are the nuggets that Knicks head coach Mike Woodson has persistently imparted to J.R. Smith, the team's ultra-talented but enigmatic guard.

Smith returned last night (Wednesday) for Game 5 of the Knicks' first-round Eastern Conference playoff series against the Boston Celtics at Madison Square Garden. This was his return after serving a one-game suspension for throwing an elbow to the chin of the Celtics' Jason Terry with seven minutes and six seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 3 in Boston.

The Knicks took a 3-1 series lead into Game 5, looking to close out the Celtics and await the winner of the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks pairing, which was tied at 2-2 heading into last night's game.

In all likelihood, the Knicks would have completed a sweep of the Celtics on Sunday, but without Smith, they lost a hard-fought 97-90 overtime battle. Smith was the team's second leading scorer behind Carmelo Anthony during the regular season at 18.1 points per game. He was scoring 16.3 points per outing in the three postseason games versus the Celtics prior to Game 5.

"I'm not using that as an excuse," said Woodson on Sunday in Boston regarding Smith's impact on the Game 4 loss. "We had enough [today]. J.R. is a big piece of what we do, but he wasn't here. ... We just have to go home and handle our business."

The Knicks will need Smith, the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year this season, to channel his energy in a positive manner, as he's done for the better part of this campaign, to have a legitimate chance of moving deep into the playoffs. In 2011, Anthony's first year as a Knick, he and his teammates were swept 4-0 by the then Atlantic Division champion Celtics in the first round of the postseason.

Twenty-four months later, the roles have been substantially reversed. The Knicks won the division and were poised last night to earn their first series win since the 2000 playoffs--a 13-year drought that seems much longer given the millions in wasted money spent on underperforming players, a conga line of undermanned and unsuccessful coaches, and front office drama that was the dream of all tabloid editors. But that was yesteryear, and the franchise is depending on Smith to help break the trend.