J.R. Smith’s Struggles Show Knicks Coach Mike Woodson’s Deft Handling of Potentially Touchy Situation

Roy Hibbert, J.R. SmithMike Woodson‘s squad owns a 1-1 split in its first second-round series in 13 years, has re-energized its New York fan base and is playing so well collectively that Woodson could consider benching the reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year to go with someone who is playing better.

These are good problems for Woodson to have.

Should the Knicks coach go with a plan floated Wednesday of cutting J.R. Smith‘s minutes if the mercurial guard does not start hitting some shots, those problems could go from good to highly sensitive. Even as a reserve dynamo, Smith has never dealt well with coming off the bench. He even said earlier this season that he felt he should start. Seeing his playing time diminish while still coming off the bench is probably not at the top of Smith’s wish list. Yet Woodson’s willingness to address Smith’s cold shooting as the troublesome issue it is, and not some touchy subject that must be swept under the rug, shows just how much things have changed for the Knicks under Woodson.

Former Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni went to great lengths to avoid the slightest suggestion that some aspect of his team’s approach had to change, whether by himself or his players. This is not a referendum on D’Antoni. The former NBA Coach of the Year would have quickly lost Smith, not to mention the rest of the locker room, with his unceremonious way to relaying messages to his team and the media. Such glib, straight talk has been welcomed by some players, like Steve Nash, and grated on others.

Woodson seems to have no such trouble. While insulating his players from outside criticism, Woodson seems more comfortable discussing potential changes in public, trusting that the respect he has built up among the players will lessen the backlash.

“I’ll gauge J.R. as we go along, and if I feel he’s not giving me anything, I could always turn to other guys on that bench,” Woodson told ESPN Radio, according to ESPN.com. “I feel good about the guys that come in off that bench, just like I feel good about J.R. But if he’s struggling and I feel the need [that] I’ve got to pull him, then I will do that as the head coach, and then other guys have got to come in and step up and play.”

What a brilliant answer. If three tidy (OK, run-on) sentences, Woodson supplied the pertinent news that Smith could see less playing time, provided the reasons why and framed the issue in a way that will make Smith look awful if he tries to protest: Woodson feels comfortable sitting Smith because he has faith in the rest of the Knicks’ reserves. If Smith makes a fuss, he would therefore be suggesting his teammates are not capable. The narrow-eyed looks from veteran leaders like Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler would be enough to make Smith stop talking.

Pretty much since Smith made his bold claim that the Knicks’ first-round series against the Celtics would be over if he had not been suspended for Game 4, the St. Benedict’s Prep product has struggled. He has shot 15-for-57 from the floor in his last four games, which includes Games 5 and 6 against the Celtics and Games 1 and 2 against the Pacers. Considering how poorly Smith played, it is rather remarkable the Knicks managed to split those contests.

Smith needs some time to regroup. That is not to say he needs to be benched. The three-day break between Games 2 and 3 may be enough for him to catch his breath and come out on fire on Friday. It is not all that likely — Smith was limited to eight points on Tuesday, and he averaged 14.2 points per game this season in games following a single-digit scoring performance — but whatever the best course of action, Woodson knows how to handle it. More importantly, he clearly feels comfortable handling it however he sees fit without Smith going off the reservation.

And if Smith does, so what? Woodson would probably just give him a quick chewing out and sub in the next best player.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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