By Sean Hartnett
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Without injured superstar Carmelo Anthony available, the Knicks needed someone else to embrace the role of crunch time go-to guy.
J.R. Smith stepped up and filled the void left by Melo's absence. With the stinging taste of a bitter Christmas Day loss to the Los Angeles Lakers fresh in their mouths, the Knicks couldn't afford to give away another game on their road trip.
Smith refused to let a win slip through the Knicks' fingers. He scored a season-high 27 points and sunk two crucial shots in the final seconds -- including a dramatic buzzer-beating game-winner.
"We needed it," Smith told reporters in the visiting locker room at US Airways Center. "Our method is we can't lose two in a row. It was big just to see how high my teammates were. Tyson and J-Kidd, they've seen big shots hit before. For them to be excited made me feel real great."
Smith battled for position with P.J. Tucker and slipped before regaining his balance, and then received an inbound pass from Jason Kidd. With one second left and the threat of overtime staring him in the face, Smith hit a catch-and-shoot 21-foot jump shot to lift the Knicks over the Phoenix Suns, 99-97.
"I was trying to get my form ready before I even thought about taking it," Smith said of the game-winning bucket. "(I was) just going through my mechanics in my head, getting my shoulders square to (the) basket and just let it fly."
Just like his game-winning shot against the Charlotte Bobcats earlier this month, Smith busted into a salsa dance, imitating close friend Victor Cruz of the New York Giants. Smith and Cruz played AAU ball together for The Playaz Basketball Club of Paterson, New Jersey.
"He's proven he can make a shot at the end of the game," Knicks head coach Mike Woodson told reporters. "I'm asking him to shoot the ball and score the basketball for us. I'm trying to put him in positions to do that. He was up and down a little bit, but he was making some shots and he made the one that counted. You can't be scared to step and shoot it."
There are times when Smith makes you shake your head. He'll lose his concentration at a crucial moment or hoist up a number of ill-advised shots when he could have passed to an open teammate.
Lately, we're seeing less and less perplexing moments from Smith. His increased dedication to improving his game -- combined with a willingness to tone down his partying -- is part of the reason why Smith is playing the most consistent basketball of his career.
Woodson: Demanding Teacher -- Smith: Willing Pupil
The other part of the equation is Woodson demanding the best from Smith and being a guiding hand. Woodson and the Knicks are the first coach and organization to put their complete trust in Smith. Now, they're reaping the rewards.
"It's not just tonight; I'm on him about that every night," Woodson explained. "Right from the start he was steady, all the way to the end."
Woodson isn't afraid to place more responsibility on Smith's shoulders. Judging by Smith's comments after the game, he thrives on the support of Woodson and his teammates.
"The way we were going through the huddle, (the way) coach was drawing up the plays, he looked at me like, 'We're going to you,'" Smith stated. "That was big, just to show the confidence. That gave me the extra emphasis to hit the shot."
Felton Injury Update
Raymond Felton did not play against the Suns due to a fractured pinkie finger on his right hand. He will not suit up in Sacramento on Friday. His fractured finger will get a second look when he returns to New York. If Felton requires surgery, it could force him to miss four to six weeks.
Smith is yet to start a game for the Knicks this season. With Anthony and Felton missing, Woodson started James White at shooting guard and Ronnie Brewer at small forward.
It seems as if Woodson is reluctant to move Smith from the sixth-man role, especially with Iman Shumpert getting closer to returning from an ACL injury.
Maybe it's time to rethink that?
"J.R. might have to play some more," Woodson mentioned after Wednesday's victory. "We can mix and match and see what happens."
Whether or not Smith starts, he's getting starter minutes. He's averaging 32.6 minutes per game this season and has received an average of 37.6 minutes in his last three games.
In his five most recent games, Smith is averaging 23.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.2 steals and is shooting .458 from the field. He's filling up the stat sheet and contributing in all areas on the court.
Whatever role Smith plays for the Knicks going forward, it's clear that he craves responsibility and has broad enough shoulders to carry the Knicks when needed.
How impressed are you by Smith's improvement this year? Is he unquestionably the best sixth man in the league? Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.
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