Much has been made of the downward spiral of JR Smith in these playoffs. Fortunately for the Knicks, there has been a corresponding upward trend by Iman Shumpert. As the saying goes, “When one door closes, another door gets dunked on by Iman Shumpert.”
Let’s start with Smith. Much like the Knicks themselves, JR started the playoffs pretty strong. In the first three games against the Celtics, he was 7-19, 7-15 and 6-12 from the field. While 43% isn’t amazing, it’s actually better than the 42% JR shot during the regular season. Then came the elbow, the ejection, the suspension, the trash talk and finally, the slide. Since his suspension Smith has shot 3-14, 5-13, 4-15 and 3-15 for an abysmal 26%. Not surprisingly, New York went 3-0 with the hotter JR and has gone 2-3 since (including the suspension game).
Yet, there is cause for hope even if Smith can’t pull out of his funk immediately. That hope is the rising play of Iman Shumpert. In the first three games when the Knicks were bulldozing Boston, their top three scorers in each game were Smith, Raymond Felton and Carmelo Anthony and they took and made the bulk of the shots for New York. Shumpert’s role was as a defensive stopper who occasionally spotted up for a three. In those three games he went 1-2, 2-6 and 1-5 from the field. He also never played more than 22 minutes in any of those three games.
The thing that Felton, Smith and Anthony have in common is that they can create their own shot either from the perimeter or by attacking the basket off the dribble. Most of the rest of New York’s scoring comes from spot up shooting off the catch or the occasional alley-oop dunk by a big man. When Smith was suspended, New York found itself without a key component of their offense. Among other things, Coach Mike Woodson likes to keep three guards on the floor at all times and Smith had been giving him 30 minutes a game that now needed to be funneled elsewhere.
Since Shumpert’s offensive skillset most closely resembles Smith’s (of Woodson’s options), and he had been playing so few minutes, I suggested to Posting and Toasting’s Seth Rosenthal that Shumpert would see a major spike in playing time. Sure enough, Shumpert’s minutes doubled, as he went 44 minutes in game four against the Celtics. As required, he was much more aggressive on the offensive end, taking 13 shots instead of his usual four or five. Though he only made five of them and the Knicks lost, Woodson’s show of faith in Shumpert has reaped rewards as the playoffs have progressed. Even with the return of Smith, Shumpert has continued to see increased minutes: 29, 38, 33 and 29. This has been accompanied by greater aggression and greater success on the offensive end. Iman has shot 4-7, 6-9, 4-11 and 7-11 in those games. After taking just four shots a game in the first three clashes with Boston, Shumpert has averaged 10 shots a game since, while hitting on 51% of those shots.
Shumpert’s most recent effort would seem the most promising and will be one the Pacers need to account for as the series continues. In that game, Shumpert went 6-8 from two-point range. This was the first playoff game which Iman made more than three shots from inside the arc and hopefully this is a sign that Shumpert is finally becoming confident attacking the basket again after a very slow and gradual return from his ACL surgery. Though at least he was finding ways to help his team on the court during the time he was rebuilding his confidence after the doctors cleared him (mandatory jab at Derrick Rose of the hated/feared Bulls).
Given that it has taken Shumpert over 50 games to perform at this level after coming back from his injury, I hope New York fans have very low expectations should Amare Stoudemire return to the court this Saturday. As we saw from STAT earlier this season, even he doesn’t play like an all-star for the first several games after a long absence due to injury. Given the size of Indiana’s frontline and the Knicks inability to find a big man that can score when Melo is on the bench, even a 60% STAT might be pretty helpful at this point though.
Since New York just beat the Pacers by 26, while Smith was shooting 3-15 and STAT was in street clothes, I really like New York’s chances in this series. Charles Barkley and his predictions otherwise and statement that Indiana is just a better team be darned. We’ll see Chuck, we’ll see… If Shumpert stays aggressive and keeps giving the Knicks another solid option on the offensive side of the floor (to go with his incredible efforts on the defensive end), then I think Indiana is in quite a bit of trouble.