NEW YORK -- The Knicks tried to disappear a whole person, J.R. Smith, on Thursday night. In the process, they managed to obscure their best win of the season, a 102-92 victory over the Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden.
This is fundamentally different than suspending someone, or trading someone, or releasing someone, or failing to match an offer sheet for your most popular player and global phenomenon. When you do that, the player is gone. The Knicks could get away without ever speaking publicly about why they let Jeremy Lin go, because Lin wasn't a member of the Knicks anymore. But incredibly, J.R. Smith wasn't told that he wouldn't play on Thursday night. He wasn't, according to Smith, told anything at all.
The first inkling anybody had that the reigning Sixth Man of the Year would be a DNP came about 100 minutes before gametime, when coach Mike Woodson was asked an innocuous question in his pregame presser about Smith's latest -- but by no means his most egregious -- transgression.
In case you missed it, Smith untied Shawn Marion's shoelace as Dirk Nowitzki shot a free throw during the Knicks-Mavericks game on Sunday. The NBA gave Smith a warning. He attempted to do the same on Tuesday night, with Greg Monroe of the Pistons the new target. The league fined him $50,000.
Fine, so be it. This is the guy who missed five games earlier this year for testing positive for marijuana. This is the guy who was fined by the league for tushy tweeting.
So Woodson had two options. Option one: same as before, express disappointment, move on. Option two: make it clear publicly, and to Smith, that he had committed one too many crimes against whatever basketball code finds shoelace hijinks beyond the pale but playing a guy coming off of a broken leg 37 minutes in his first game back perfectly fine, and suspend Smith.
Instead, here's what Mike Woodson said: "You know, guys, just in fairness to our team, I'm not addressing anything else on J.R. I'm not."
A reporter followed up, reasonably: why not?
"I'm just not gonna do it."
No one really knew what that meant, though. Would Smith not play for a quarter? A half? Had he already been traded, something the Knicks had reportedly started pursuing?
So as the Knicks outplayed the Heat, getting an excellent game from Iman Shumpert, more sustained quality play from Amar'e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani and Raymond Felton than they'd had all season, along with typical Carmelo Anthony greatness, everyone's view was tilted just beyond the court. There, Smith sat at the end of the bench, not participating in huddles, sullenly taking in the proceedings.
When the second half warmups began, Smith gamely went to midcourt and stretched. Had his punishment ended? It had not. Smith cheered for his teammates, and even gave the Knicks a standing ovation, walking onto the court as the final seconds ticked off, completing the team's most exciting home win of the season.
Woodson, rather than putting the story to rest and allowing reporters to focus on the many positives from the night, continued his odd pretense that J.R. Smith doesn't exist anymore. Second question: was J.R. hurt? Or a coach's decision?
"Not gonna comment on that. On J.R. Just talking about the game."
There was a long pause. No one could quite believe it.
Ian Begley, excellent Knicks beat reporter for ESPN, followed up. "Mike, I know you don't want to talk about the situation, but could you say if he was healthy enough to play?"
"Again, not talking about J.R. If you want to talk about the game, let's talk about the game."
Accordingly, a couple of reporters tried to ask Woodson whether his rotation had changed. This was a backdoor way of asking about Smith's playing time, of course, but it also had an enormous basketball component -- the group he'd just used had beaten the Miami Heat.
That's when Woodson found his fallback position: not talking about anything at all.
"I'm just coaching, that's all," Woodson said in response to a question about whether the other players knew about the rotation change. "I don't need to tell anybody anything." There were no follow ups to that.
Thanks to some Knicks beat reporters pointing out to the league that rules required the Knicks to make a requested player available pre- or post-game, the team finally made Smith available. They did so halfway through Woodson's presser, though, so by the time most of the reporters, this one included, got to Smith, he'd already been speaking for a minute or so. And the Knicks only made him available for two minutes after we arrived.
But in that short time, pinned against a white board on the near end of the Knicks' locker room, Smith expressed bewilderment about his night. If the intent was to send a message to get a player signed to a three-year, $18 million contract, that player hadn't received that message, or any message, thanks largely to no one telling him what was going on. He was asked if he thought his future was in New York.
"Honestly, I don't even know," Smith responded. "At one point I was for sure. Now, it's rocking the boat."
Did you show up expecting to play today?
"Yeah, 100 percent."
A player who is no stranger to disciplinary actions tried to take us through why he thought a $50,000 fine and complete freeze-out from his employer was more than he deserved for a couple of shoe-based pranks.
"After they warned me, but it wasn't one of those warnings where you were like 'Oh damn'. It was one of those warnings where you don't know the outcome of it, if it was a warning, or what it was."
A final question came on whether this was a one-game thing, or would be ongoing.
"Honestly, I had no conversation about this situation. So I really don't know what to expect."
Neither does anybody else. Smith confirmed that he hadn't spoken to Woodson all day.
And so the Knicks, who are finally playing good basketball for the first extended time all year -- they've won a season-high three in a row -- had completed their self-hijacking of that very fact in the media.
There have been plenty of times when J.R. Smith has caused p.r. headaches for the Knicks. Thursday night, they did it to themselves.
And no matter how hard Mike Woodson closes his eyes and plugs his ears, J.R. Smith is still on the Knicks, still owed $18 million through the 2015-16 season, and apparently, will still show up for practices and games until he's told otherwise.
All that disappeared was a chance for the fans to feel really good about their team for the first time in a while.