Early on, Melo was Melo, scoring nine points in the first quarter. But the pick-and-roll between Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler wasn't producing points. In fact, Chandler didn't have a single field goal as the roll man tonight. In addition, the guys were bricking continuously from beyond the arc.
So where did that leave the Knicks? In the hands of Smith, who was desperately needed for his instant offense when he checked in with 6:52 to play in the first quarter. Within a minute, Smith got it going -- but he didn't do it with his scoring. He did it with his passing.
With 6:07 remaining, he drove past Luke Ridnour and found Chandler inside for the dunk. Then, he dished to Anthony for a 3-pointer, and, a few possessions later, he had a ridiculous mid-air, look-behind pass to Kurt Thomas for the jumpshot.
By the end of the opening period, Smith only had two points, but he had three assists. Felton and Jason Kidd had none. Then, in the second half, Smith had four more dishes, including his biggest one of the night -- finding Anthony for a 3 with 1:53 to play in the game, which inched the Knicks the closest they had been since the first quarter, 86-85.
"J.R. has an all-around game," Felton said. "That's what a lot of people don't realize. They think he can just put the ball in the basket. J.R. can really penetrate, make good passes and create for everybody else. That's only going to make us better."
As it turns out, entering tonight, the Knicks were actually worse offensively when Smith was on the court. They were averaging 100 points per 48 minutes and 18.2 assists, and when he was off it, they were averaging 107.5 points and 23.1 assists. That's primarily because the Knicks' two main offensive staples -- Anthony and the Felton/Chandler pick-and-roll -- have worked best without another isolation scorer on the floor at the same time with Melo.
But tonight, Smith was much more than an isolation scorer -- he did finish with 19 points on 7-for-15 shooting -- but it was his playmaking and finding his teammates that kept the Knicks clawing back. While Smith was off the court, the Knicks had a negative-5 plus-minus, a worse field goal percentage (40) and they didn't make a single 3. But when he was playing, the team was plus-8, shot 45.6 percent and made six 3s.
"I think it's just unselfishness, understanding that he's drawing two guys and he can find the open guy," Kidd said. "He trusts his teammates will knock down the shot. ... I think it makes the game so easy for everybody."
In addition, Smith got it done defensively, which he's been doing all season. Entering tonight, when he's been on the court, the Knicks were allowing 4.3 fewer points per 48 minutes, as well as lower field goal and 3-point percentages.
One play defined Smith's effort tonight on that end. After Felton missed a 3-pointer with 5:26 left in the first quarter, J.J. Barea grabbed the rebound and looked to push like he was doing the entire period, trying to take advantage of the Knicks' slower feet. But Smith hustled back, and when Barea fired a deep pass down the court, the sixth man was already there to snatch it out of the air. That was a momentum changer.
"He played a great game, both ends of the floor," Chandler said. "He did an excellent job on the defensive end, pressuring the ball, communicating out there off the ball."
Tonight, Smith was needed in a different way, and he delivered. In fact, while Ronnie Brewer played only 13 minutes -- his second-lowest amount this season -- Smith played his second-highest (39). Mike Woodson didn't even waste time putting Smith back in the game in the third quarter. Brewer was subbed out with nine minutes to play, and he didn't see the court again.
That's because Smith was "big time," according to Woodson.
"J.R.'s had three steady games for us, which is really nice," he said. "I'm playing him long stretches minutes-wise. I've got to have him down the stretch where he's able to make plays."
Research assistance: Ryan Feldman, ESPN Stats & Info
You can follow Jared Zwerling on Twitter.