Freak is the word LeBron James uses to describe James Jones.
As in, Jones has put in so much time and work behind the scenes without even the slightest hint that he might actually play, that the Heat’s sharpshooter can only be described as freaky or freakish or, in the words of the four-time NBA MVP, “a freak.”
The freak was super on Sunday in the Heat’s first game of the 2014 playoffs.
Called into service in the second quarter, Jones delivered a necessary spark in the first half of the Heat’s 99-88 victory against the Charlotte Bobcats in Game 1 of Miami’s best-of-7, first-round playoff series. With the defending back-to-back champions once again needing a surge off the bench in the second half, Jones entered the game midway through the third quarter and provided a pair of three-pointers to break open a close game.
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All those long days in the gym paid off for Jones on the biggest stage.
“I have the luxury of playing with some of the best playmakers, and guys get me good shots in open spots, and that’s my responsibility — to make them,” said Jones, a graduate of Miami American Senior High and a newly inducted member of the University of Miami sports hall of fame.
The hometown product finished with 12 points in 14 minutes in delivering his first double-figure scoring effort in a playoff game since 2011. In the Heat’s first postseason game of 2014, Jones’ contributions were the biggest difference between the team that won the NBA’s two previous championships and the current, slightly different version that’s beginning its quest for three in a row.
On Sunday, James said he expects Jones to play a crucial role this postseason as the team searches for ways to replace the clutch three-point shooting of Mike Miller. In a move to avoid a big hit in luxury-tax fees, the Heat used its one-time “amnesty clause” last summer to remove Miller’s contract from the league’s ledger. Miller is now playing for the Memphis Grizzlies.
“I think J.J. is going to play a big part of our success — of how far we go,” James said. “It was huge for him to come off the bench tonight and make the plays that he made. He even had two layup attempts, which is unlike J.J. — a career high — so that was huge.”
James and other luminaries in the NBA have long admired Jones for his unflappable professionalism and dogged work ethic. That James calls Jones a freak is the highest of compliments coming from a player who values hard work above all. Jones has been resigned to the end of the Heat’s bench for much of the past two seasons, but he practices his three-point shooting just as habitually as the most obsessive players in the league.
Ray Allen is legendary for getting to the gym hours before games to get up shots. NBA fans might know Allen’s nickname as Jesus Shuttlesworth — a nod to the character he played in Spike Lee’s He Got Game — but insiders around the league call Allen “Every Day” Ray.
Every day, Jones is right there alongside Allen before games and before practices and matching the league’s all-time leader in three-pointers shot for shot.
And now, without being a part of the Heat’s rotation for most of the season, it appears Jones could be a significant role player in the postseason. In addition to moving ahead of Shane Battier in the pecking order of Heat shooters, Jones also played more minutes on Sunday than Heat reserve Rashard Lewis, who was expected to feature prominently off the bench for the Heat.
Battier didn’t play on Sunday, and Lewis logged less than nine minutes. In another twist, reserve point guard Norris Cole played more minutes than Allen, the Heat’s traditional sixth man. Allen went scoreless in Game 1 against the Bobcats while Cole had seven points and was a defensive pest against the Bobcats’ quick backcourt.
Cole isn’t expected to play more minutes than Allen as the playoffs progress. The unexpected substitution patterns were obvious signs that the Heat is still figuring itself out after a regular season in which the top priority was to get everyone to playoffs healthy. And with the unfortunate foot injury to Charlotte Bobcats center Al Jefferson, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra basically has an entire round to tinker.
Spoelstra went to Jones after it became apparent that Jefferson’s foot injury wasn’t going away. In going small with Jones, Spoelstra created a mismatch that opened the game for the Heat. Jones said after the game that he didn’t know he was part of the game plan until Spoelstra called for him with less than six minutes remaining in the second quarter.
“Coach called my number and asked me to go in there and bring some energy and make some shots, and that’s what I did,” Jones said. “My team won, that’s the best thing about it. My individual efforts don’t really give me much excitement.
“It’s all about winning. If I can help the team win by performing well, I relish that opportunity.”