Heading into the postseason, Iman Shumpert found himself on the outside looking in when it came to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ playoff rotation. Following the NBA All-Star break, Shumpert saw his field goal percentage drop from 42.5 to 38.5 large in part to a three-point shooting rate that plummeted to 25.3 percent. His net rating went from +3.5 to -0.6 thanks to an offensive rating of 109 before the break and a putrid 88 after it. When Shumpert was on the floor, he waffled between uncomfortable and lost, missing wide-open threes, turning the ball over, and earning the ire of fans who saw flashes of what he could produce when he came out firing on all cylinders throughout the early portion of the season. Things appeared to bottom out in the Cavs’ late-season collapse against the Atlanta Hawks where Shumpert had a plus-minus of -22 in just 17 minutes of play.
Shumpert’s late-season struggles were ill-timed as David Griffin used the second half of the season to add backcourt players who find minutes in Ty Lue’s regular season rotation—Derrick Williams, Deron Williams—joining the late-January addition of Kyle Korver. In Game 1 of the opening round of the NBA Playoffs, Shumpert played nary a minute as the nine-man rotation was filled out by Channing Frye, Deron Williams, Kyle Korver and Richard Jefferson. This all changed, however, after Smith injured his hand in Game 2, forcing Lue to turn to Shumpert. In handing the veteran some playing time, Lue also handed him the toughest task on the floor in guarding Indiana’s Paul George.
Though he only played 19 minutes and scored just five points in Game 2, Shumpert was immediate energy. He came out firing, hitting one of two three-point attempts, and recorded a steal on the defensive end, making life very difficult for the Pacers star. In the decisive Game 4 against the Pacers, while he was just 1-of-4 from the floor, that one was again a clutch three-pointer. Most importantly, over the course of his 36 combined minutes in Games 2 and 4, the Cavaliers outscored the Pacers by five points—a far cry from what had transpired with Shumpert on the floor over the regular season’s final months.
Immediately following Game 2 against the Pacers, both head coach Ty Lue and four-time MVP LeBron James praised the veteran swingman for not getting down about his playing time, taking the task like a true professional, and taking on the challenge of defending the opposing team’s most dangerous offensive threat. For his work, Shumpert has gone from afterthought to the Cavs’ sixth man, being the first player to come off of Lue’s bench in the team’s Game 1 win over the Toronto Raptors.
“After the first game in the last series, Iman was the first man off the bench to get J.R. [Smith], and guard Paul George,” Lue told WFNY following the win. “I like how he’s taken the challenge defensively. He wants to guard the best players. It’s what we have him for, and he’s doing a good job of it.
“I like his energy, I like his intensity. We just have to keep building on it.”
In his 17 minutes of play in the series opening win, Shumpert finished with one of the more well-rounded box scores of the night with five points, four rebounds, and three assists. His two baskets were especially important given both the juncture of the game1 and what they ultimately did to Cavalier fans who filled The Q. Late in the first quarter, it was Shumpert who took the ball off the wing, looked off Kyrie Irving at the top of the key, and went straight to the rim for a monster dunk on Toronto’s Serge Ibaka—a player who was brought into bolster the Raptors’ defense.
Then, late in the third quarter, as the Cavalier were looking to pad their lead heading into the fourth quarter, it was Shumpert who checked in for Jameds and drained a 25-foot three pointer to give Kyrie Irving his 10th assist on the night and the Cavaliers a 23-point lead. On the subsequent play, Shump pulled down a Norman Powell miss, drove the length of the floor and then dished it off to a cutting Tristan Thompson for the high-percentage finish.
“Kyrie collapsed the defense, and I was able to turn the corner and get to my launching pad,” said Shumpert of the poster-ready dunk following the game. “I’m pretty used to dunking, but in the playoffs, it’s definitely a good feeling. If it’s a layup, fans still go crazy, but if it’s a dunk? It usually results in a timeout. Those timeout moments are the best in the playoffs. It’s one of those energy plays, and my job with this team—especially the unit I come in with—is to provide energy.”
Moments like these, where Cavaliers star players are sitting and reserve players execute in their fits and starts, are what wins playoff basketball games. It is also moments like these that cement players into a rotation that drastically condenses over the course of the postseason. In turn, on night where Dahntay Jones, James Jones, and Derrick Williams earned garbage time minutes, Richard Jefferson was Cleveland’s lone DNP-CD. With the Cavaliers having so much depth at the wing, however, Lue’s moves can be very fluid. While best-of-seven series can provide a bit of a safety net for a coach’s eighth or ninth man, the expectations placed upon this team can see players lose their spot as quickly as they gained it.
“We have to do a better job of making sure when the starters do come out, T-Lue can trust us to not only hold the lead and keep the train on the tracks, but at times, stretch it out,” said Shumpert. “Anything over 10, we should be able to stretch open; anything closer to 20, T-Lue shouldn’t have to worry. I felt like he had to worry a bit, and that’s on us.”
Things will not get easier for Shump as the postseason wears on. Assuming the Cavaliers advance, he will be looking at guarding either Boston’s Isaiah Thomas or one of Washington’s lethal backcourt players in John Wall or Bradley Beal. In the west, players remaining include Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, and James Harden. If any one player has personified the up-and-down nature of an NBA regular season, it’s Iman Shumpert. But if any one player can give this Cavaliers team the boost it was so desperately lacking toward the regular season’s final months, doing so in the game’s most important ones, it’s Iman Shumpert—even if it’s just a few minutes at a time.
- The reserves had coughed up the team’s early lead in the second quarter. [↩]