LeBron James Surprisingly Behind New J.R. Smith Documentary

Amazon is set to release a four-part series about the polarizing former NBA player, who arguably cost the Cavaliers a second championship

R Smith on the 8th during the Pro-Am prior to the BMW Championship at Wilmington Country Club on August 17, 2022 in Wilmington, Delaware.
JR Smith is getting the documentary-series treatment from perhaps an unlikely source
Andy Lyons / Staff, Getty Images

Whatever frustration LeBron James had with J.R. Smith after Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals — and, boy, was it a lot — it seems to have long dissipated. Through his media platform, Uninterrupted, James produced a four-part documentary series about his former polarizing teammate called Redefined: J.R. Smith. Streaming on Amazon Prime Video beginning April 4, the show will cover the ex-NBA guard’s post-basketball life, focusing heavily on his enrollment in college, at North Carolina AT&T, where he’s also a member of the school’s golf team.

Smith jumped to the NBA straight from high school when he was selected in the first round of the league’s 2004 draft by the then New Orleans Hornets. He retired after the 2020 season, but between those milestones Smith earned a reputation as a sometimes unstable force both on and off the court.

In 2006, the NBA suspended Smith for 10 games after starting an on-court brawl. Seven months later, he ran a stop sign while driving his SUV, which led to a crash that killed his passenger, a friend named Andre Bell. Ultimately, Smith, who’d also accrued a number of driving violations prior to that incident, served 24 days in jail. Just four months after the car accident, he was suspended by his team, the Denver Nuggets, for three games in response to his involvement in a fight outside an area nightclub. There were a series of social media gaffes that followed and, in 2013, he was again suspended by the NBA, this time for five games, after failing a drug test.

The incidents (which he thinks played a part in him being “blackballed” by the NBA) didn’t end there, but I’ll move on to perhaps the basketball-related screwup for which he’s best remembered.

The Cleveland Cavaliers made their fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals in 2018, matched up for the fourth straight time with the Golden State Warriors, who’d beaten LeBron James’ Cavs twice in the first three series. The Warriors were massive favorites to win again because they had Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. But James, his Cavs teammates and coaches had a plan that basically went like this: let James, the greatest player on the planet, try his best to score every point he can, and then play tight defense.

For nearly four quarters of Game 1 on the Warriors’ home court, it worked. James ultimately scored 51 points and added eight rebounds and eight assists. His Cavs were leading late, too, 106-104. But with 23 seconds left, the Cavs’ Kevin Love fouled Steph Curry hard while Curry laid up an equalizer. Curry’s resulting free throw strike put the Warriors up 107-106.

But while James tried to complete a pass to George Hill on the next possession, Thompson fouled Hill, giving the Cavs a chance to win the game with two free throws at the 4.7-second mark. Hill hit his first, then missed his second.

With the game tied, J.R. Smith impressively rebounded the ball off the Hill miss, but then inextricably dribbled out past the three-point line. James screamed at Smith to pass the ball back to an open Hill. Smith did, but the delayed reaction allowed Draymond Green to close in on Hill and block his shot. The game went into overtime where the Cavs lost by a score of 124-114. Cavs coach Ty Lue said afterward that Smith thought the Cavs were ahead by a point and was trying to drain the clock by dribbling away from Warriors defenders. Smith said he was waiting for his bench to call a timeout.

“His logic fails for two reasons,” wrote The Ringer. “One, Smith could have called a timeout anywhere and opted not to do so for the entirety of the play. Two, there is footage of Smith appearing to tell James he thought the Cavs were ahead, because unfortunately for J.R., these basketball games are filmed with cameras.”

So angry with the Game 1 outcome, James punched a whiteboard and played the rest of the series — a four-game Golden State sweep — with a broken hand. Anyone who watched that game live, like I did, knew the series was over when Smith messed up. The Ringer called it possibly “the costliest mistake in basketball history.” It was going to take a perfect game for the Cavs to beat that Warriors team. And they played one, until they didn’t.

Maybe the Cavs wouldn’t have won a second championship even with a Game 1 victory, sure. But stealing one on the road out of the gate would certainly have improved their chances. They also would’ve had a blueprint for more series wins.

James and Smith wound up together in the NBA Finals again in 2020, when their Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat. While the Amazon documentary series had not yet been announced, earlier this month Smith appeared on HBO and discussed his time playing alongside James. “Honestly, it’s a gift and a curse,” Smith told Bomani Jones. He said he liked playing with James because it brought expectations and pressure. However, he added, “[You’re] always going to be [part of] that supporting cast of who’s not doing what [and] if you’re not built for that, you’re not made for that, it’s going to eat you alive.”

In 2021, upon enrolling at North Carolina AT&T, a school he chose in large part because it is a Historically Black College or University, Smith said playing for the golf team there would be “fun,” though not quite the same as “playing in front of 20,000 people” in an NBA arena.

“But it’s still as nerve-racking as shooting a free throw in front of 5,000 instead of making a 5-foot putt in front of three,” he added. “So it all correlates the same for me.”

LeBron’s production team captured some of that fun for the upcoming documentary series. Presumably, show development meetings were held without whiteboards.

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