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J.R. Smith says ability to challenge LeBron James, and handle his fury, helps Lakers

JR Smith as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers
It’s been 20 months since former Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith played in an NBA game. What does he hope to accomplish with the Lakers?
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

J.R. Smith sat in front of a Lakers backdrop, pulled a purple and gold bandana off his face and grinned at a screen to begin his first (remote) press conference as a Laker.

It has been almost a year since Smith was on an NBA team and he’s determined to enjoy every moment.

“Being somebody who has been around the league predominately for most of their adult life, when that’s kind of taken away from you, it kind of gives you that culture shock and you obviously don’t understand what you lost until it’s gone,” Smith said. “So, for me more than anything, I just want to appreciate the moment.”

After not playing in nearly 20 months, Smith is getting another opportunity — one he wasn’t sure would come. Last week, the Lakers signed the 34-year-old guard for the remainder of the season, which will be played in Florida, as a replacement for Avery Bradley.

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Will this last beyond this season? Smith doesn’t know. And in some ways he doesn’t care.

Lakers center Dwight Howard has decided he will take part in the NBA season restart in Orlando. He says he will donate his salary to charity.

“I just take it a day at a time,” Smith said. “Literally a breath at a time. Because I’ve been out for a while. Being around and being in that environment is so refreshing and much needed.”

Smith spent 4½ years in Cleveland and was with the Cavaliers for four consecutive Finals appearances alongside LeBron James. They won a championship in 2016. Their run ended after the 2018 Finals, when the Cavaliers were swept by the Golden State Warriors after a late blunder by Smith drew James’ ire in Game 1.

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Smith and James had a long history predating their time together. It’s why when they became teammates, Smith felt comfortable challenging James. He feels that ability will help his transition onto this new team so late in the season.

“I know how ‘Bron can get pissed and people are not gonna know how to deal with it. So it gives that gap of understanding,” Smith said, insisting James is “still all about winning” while drawing a parallel with the way Michael Jordan dealt with teammates in “The Last Dance” documentary.

“Because as we’ve all seen in the MJ doc ... he was so hard on his teammates and stuff like that. But we got a case like LeBron, it’s different,” Smith said, “because obviously he does everything he wants to do to win, and everything else. It kind of comes off in the wrong way sometimes. And you need that bridge as a player to be posted to the next player, like ‘Hey look man, it’s nothing personal.’ ”

The Lakers worked out Smith in March but opted to sign Dion Waiters instead. Smith has been participating in individual workouts at the Lakers’ facility since he signed and the team has been impressed.

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Amid players and team staff testing positive for COVID-19, the NBA heads to Orlando knowing its setup for the season might not be good enough.

“This is really a great story,” coach Frank Vogel said. “When you look at a guy who could potentially be out of the league and was a starter on a Finals team a couple years back, a champion, for him to have the perseverance to stay ready and give himself this opportunity, I think, is to be commended.”

That wasn’t always easy. There were moments when Smith wondered if his career was over.

“I went through a very depressed state for a long time. And it lasted for a few months, where I just didn’t — I’m a big video gamer, I didn’t even play '[NBA] 2K’ anymore,” Smith said. “I don’t wanna hoop, I don’t wanna work out, I don’t wanna play ‘2K,’ I don’t want do anything with basketball.”

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His parents helped him work through that, he said.

“My dad is always on me and on me and on me about what I accomplished and what I still have left in the tank and stuff like that,” Smith said. “So ... if it wasn’t for them, I probably would still be in that situation.”


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