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."
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.
"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."