Shumpert hitting his stride in unexpected role for Cavs


Shumpert hitting his stride in unexpected role for Cavs

When the Cavaliers traded for guards J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert on Jan. 5, the former was considered the headliner in the deal. Smith, two years removed from winning the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award, was expected to thrive in Cleveland's up-tempo, 3-point heavy offense with the help of an elite distributor in James and a less stressful role behind Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

At the time of the trade, Shumpert was still recovering from a dislocated shoulder and wouldn't play until late January. By that time Smith had cemented himself as the starting shooting guard, leaving Shumpert to play the role of defensive specialist on the second unit.

But when Smith was suspended for the first two games of the Cavaliers' semifinals matchup against the Bulls and Kevin Love was ruled out of the series with a separated shoulder, the Cavaliers called upon Shumpert to expand his game on both ends of the floor. And as a hobbled Kyrie Irving limped to the finish line, it was suddenly Shumpert who took on the role of being both Cleveland's second scoring option and defensive stopper in the starting lineup.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

In a nutshell, Shumpert was magnificent. And his inspiring performance in the series culminated Thursday night in Game 6, when his second quarter run sparked the Cavaliers in what would become a 94-73 series-clinching victory.

With the Bulls hanging around midway through the second quarter, Shumpert drove from the left wing and was met with a clothesline by Nikola Mirotic. The Bulls rookie, who had also tussled briefly with LeBron James in Game 5, walked toward a fallen Shumpert and appeared to stare him down. The Cavaliers kept their composure, with tensions never escalating toward the level they had when Matthew Dellavedova and Taj Gibson scuffled 48 hours earlier.

Shumpert split two free throws after Mirotic was assessed a Flagrant 1 foul, then followed his freebie with a driving layup and 3-pointer over Mirotic in successive possessions that pushed the lead out to seven. That personal 6-0 run from Shumpert began a decisive 17-4 Cavaliers run that pushed their lead to 14 by halftime, and the Bulls never got within single digits the rest of the night.

"Everybody needs to be inspired by something," Shumpert said of Mirotic's hard foul. "And at that moment I took it as, instead of trying to win the fight, I wanted to win the game."

[MORE: Lifeless Bulls fall to Cavs in series-clincher]

It capped off an improbable series for Shumpert. Though part of the Cavs rotation all year, even a best-case scenario couldn't have pegged the swingman for his series averages: 12.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.3 steals in 36 minutes per game. He also turned the ball over once in 218 minutes. None of those numbers include the valiant effort he gave defending both Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler at different points in the series, with the Cavaliers attempting to hide Irving's injury defensively while finding a way to keep him in for his offensive threat.

With Irving still hobbled by aggravated foot and knee injuries, Shumpert's tests will continue in the next round. Unless Irving can recuperate quickly, Shumpert likely will find himself guarding Atlanta's Jeff Teague or Washington's Bradley Beal the majority of the Eastern Conference Finals. He'll do so while still being expected to contribute on the offensive end in Love's absence, with more tangible numbers needed to advance to the NBA Finals.

[ALSO: LeBron lauds Dellavedova's, Thompson's effort in blowout win]

"My role was always big, just sometimes it didn’t show up in the stat sheet. With JR being suspended I got more looks at the basket and it showed up on the stat sheet, so people put more eyes on it," he said. "But these guys have always asked me to contribute different ways. It might not always show up on the stat sheet, but I’m there."

When Shumpert was dealt by New York, the Knicks were struggling to a league-worst 5-32 record. In a matter of one trade Shumpert suddenly found himself on a Cleveland team under the national microscope each time they took the floor. But with the spotlight on him as the fill-in for Smith and the defensive substitution for Irving, Shumpert played his best basketball.

When Smith was subbed out in the closing minutes of the Game 6 victory, he found Shumpert on the sidelines.

"I told him, 'Man, we came a long way.' From being where we were at with the guys we were with," he reflected, "to be switched over like this and the position we’re in now, it’s an unbelievable opportunity. We’ve got to make the most of it."

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie


Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

Los Angeles—Lauri Markkanen called himself “The Finnisher” when asked what the movie of his life would be called.

Apparently, that moniker didn’t apply to the All-Star Skills challenge as he took down the best big men but couldn’t close against a former Bull, Spencer Dinwiddie, in the final.

The contest highlights players’ ability to dribble around cones shaped like NBA logos, throwing a chest pass into a net while having to complete a layup and then 3-pointer before their opponent does.

Markkanen took down Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid before facing off with Dinwiddie. He held a pose after hitting a triple to beat the uber confident Embiid, in what will likely be used as a memorable gif following the weekend.

His confidence doesn’t come across as blatantly as Embiid’s, but that snapshot shows he’s no humble star in the making. He didn’t even practice for the contest, by his own admission.

“I heard some of the guys did,” Markkanen said. “I didn’t do much, just before the competition, I did a little warm-up.”

Missing on the first pass attempt into the circular net in the final, it gave Dinwiddie the advantage he wouldn’t relinquish, hitting on his second 3-point attempt before Markkanen could make it downcourt to contest.

“It’s a lot harder than I’ve seen,” Markkanen said. “I thought it was gonna be super easy but it was kind of tough. Maybe I need to hold my follow through (on the pass).”

“I saw he missed (the first shot) and I started going. I thought he would’ve missed it too. I think I would’ve gotten it on the third shot.”

Being one of the multi-dimensional big men in today’s game who can be adept on the perimeter as well as the interior, it almost seems like the contest was made for Markkanen. Although he doesn’t do much handling in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, it’s clearly a skill he will develop as time goes on.

The last two winners of the skills challenge were Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, and Markkanen was well aware of the recent trend.

“The last two years the bigs have won,” Markkanen said. “I’m kind of pissed that I couldn’t keep the streak going after (those two). I think there’s a lot of guys who can do that now, it’s why they changed the format to bigs versus smalls.”

For Dinwiddie, who was discarded by the Bulls last season after a promising start in the preseason so they could pick up R.J. Hunter, he’s taken advantage of an opportunity with Brooklyn.

“I think for Chicago it was just another series of unfortunate events,” he said. “They were in win-now mode. I was an unproven guard on a non-guaranteed contract and they felt Michael Carter-Williams gave them a better shot to win.”

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

This is part of a four-part series looking back at the historic career of Michael Jordan and the legacy he left on the game of basketball. It all leads up to Saturday when we unveil his top 5 moments on his 55th birthday. Here are 55-4544-23, and 22-6.

5. Jordan wins fourth title and finishes greatest individual season ever, June 16, 1996

It’s hard to comprehend just how much Jordan accomplished during the 1995-96 season. We’ll try:He won his fourth championship, was named NBA Finals MVP for a record fourth time, won All-Star Game MVP, won a record 72 games, was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, was the league’s leading scorer and became the Bulls’ all-time leader in games played. So when he dropped a casual 22 points in Game 6, it marked the end of one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Oh, and Space Jam came out a few months later.
4. Jordan hits six triples, scores 35 points in first half against Blazers, June 3, 1992

During the 1991-92 regular season, Jordan never made more than three 3-pointers in a single game. In fact, the most 3-pointers he had in any two-game stretch that year was four. So when he began burying triple after triple in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, even Jordan couldn’t believe it, giving a shrug toward the NBC announcers as if to say, “I don’t know, either.” Jordan finished the first half with six triples and scored an NBA-record 35 points. The Bulls cruised in the second half, so Jordan finished with only 39, but his shrug remains one of the most iconic NBA Finals moments in history.
3. Jordan battles the flu, scores 38 in Game 5 on his way to fifth title, June 11, 1997

The Flu Game. Jordan was battling a nasty illness in the lead-up to a pivotal Game 5 in Utah, and there were concerns about whether he would even suit up. Hours before tip Jordan got out of bed and made his way to the arena, looking to halt Utah’s momentum after it had taken Games 3 and 4 to tie the series. The Jazz came out red-hot while Jordan looked sluggish, but he responded with 17 points in the second quarter alone to give the Bulls a halftime lead. Jordan then keyed a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter to erase a Jazz lead, and he hit a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left to give the Bulls a three-point lead. The Bulls hung on, and Jordan collapsed into Scottie Pippen’s arms walking off the floor. His final line? 38 points, 13 of 27 shooting, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. Two days later the Bulls won the title in front of a sellout Chicago crowd.

2. Jordan scores 63 points against Celtics in playoff loss, April 20, 1986

Jordan had just turned 23 years old when he took to the Boston Garden floor to face Larry Bird in his prime and the Celtics. These Celtics had gone 40-1 at home, led the NBA in field goal percentage defense, started FOUR future Hall of Famers and had a fifth come off the bench. They would ultimately go down as one of the all-time greatest teams, and Jordan made them look absolutely silly. He played 50 minutes in the double-overtime thriller, shooting 22 of 41 from the field and making 19 of 21 free throws, including the last two with no time on the clock and the Bulls trailing by two at the end of regulation. He scored 54 in regulation, added five in the first overtime and four in the second. He also led the Bulls with six assists. It still stands as the NBA record for most points in any playoff game. Twenty-three years old. Twenty. Three.

1. Jordan scores 45 in final game with the Bulls, securing sixth championship, June 14, 1998

Jordan’s final game with the Bulls was iconic. Like so many of these moments, die hards know exactly where they were. The 45 points were majestic, and while he only had one rebound and one assist he affected just about every possession on both ends. But what we’ll remember most is the final 37 seconds. Jordan drove to the basket for layup that cut Utah’s lead to one, then stripped Karl Malone from behind on the next trip down. That gave the ball back to the Bulls with 20 seconds left. Jordan let the clock tick down to around 9 seconds before making his move from the left wing, driving right on Bryon Russell, (maybe pushing off) and pulling up for a jumper at the foul line. The shot was good with 5.2 seconds remaining, and John Stockton’s ensuing 3-pointer was off the mark. It gave Jordan and the Bulls their sixth NBA title, and marked the perfect ending to his Bulls career: getting it done on both ends, in the clutch, and finishing with a victory. Because it encapsulated so much of his 14-year career in Chicago, it’s our top Michael Jordan moment.