CLEVELAND — Iman Shumpert went from odd-man out to go-to guy in just two games.
Cleveland’s enigmatic shooting guard never even peeled off his warmups off in the series opener against Indiana, exiled to coach Tyronn Lue’s bench as a high-salaried cheerleader.
This was Shumpert’s playoff nightmare, and the demotion stung as he had never sat out a game before in his six-year career when healthy and in uniform.
On Monday night, Shumpert got a reprieve and made the most of it.
Needed to start the second half after J.R. Smith’s left hamstring tightened up, Shumpert provided scoring, defensive pressure on Paul George and some attitude as Cleveland survived another late rally by Indiana for a 117-111 win to take a 2-0 lead in their Eastern Conference series.
“What I saw was a true professional,” LeBron James said of Shumpert, whose struggles late in the regular season led to his Game 1 benching. “We needed it. We needed that energy from him.”
The Cavs, who got 89 points from their Big 3 of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Game 2, may need more from Shumpert if Smith’s injury lingers. Smith wasn’t happy the Cavs’ medical staff kept him out of the game and vowed he’d be ready for Game 3 on Thursday night in Indianapolis.
“If they let me play, I’ll play,” he said. “My leg ain’t broke.”
Cleveland didn’t practice on Tuesday, choosing the first of two days off before Thursday’s Game 3 at Indianapolis for rest and treatment.
Smith was visibly upset at the team’s decision to sit him in the second half. He emerged from the locker room after his teammates and immediately took a seat on the baseline floor. Guard Deron Williams briefly spoke to Smith, who has struggled with consistency after missing three months following surgery for a broken right thumb.
If Smith can’t go in Game 3, the Cavs will likely start Shumpert, who did a nice job harassing George during the third quarter when the Cavs took control and opened a 19-point lead.
Shumpert picked up a foul guarding George in his first 30 seconds on the floor before knocking down a 3-pointer from the corner, forcing Indiana coach Nate McMillan to call time. On his way back to the bench, Shumpert stomped past teammates with a look of defiance. He may have still been fuming at being left out of the rotation in the opener, but he was taking out his frustration on the Pacers.
Later in the quarter, Shumpert forced a jump ball when he tied up George near the sideline and then sneered at Indiana’s star forward. He finished with five points in 20 minutes, but his contributions went way beyond the box score.
“Shump was unbelievable,” Lue said. “Just staying ready, being professional. He came in and made it tough on Paul George. We held Paul George to four points in that third quarter where our defense was really good. Shump sparked that, made a couple shots for us also. Just his energy defensively, made a couple shots, his tenacity it was really good for us. We needed that spark.”
Maybe that spark will ignite a larger fire in the defending champions, who allowed a big lead in the fourth quarter to nearly disappear again before finishing off the Pacers.
If nothing else, Shumpert’s performance was a reminder that depth is crucial in the playoffs, things can change quickly because of injuries and benches often shrink in crunch time.
It wasn’t long ago that Shumpert was starting, but a poor stretch from mid-March until the final regular season game damaged Lue’s confidence in him. To his credit, Shumpert didn’t hang his head, knowing that there might be a time when he was needed.
It arrived and he delivered.
“He’s been great on the bench, cheering guys on, keeping guys motivated and when it was his turn to play, he stepped up and played well,” Lue said. “That’s what we need from Shump.”