When Knicks’ president Phil Jackson jettisoned J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to Cleveland on Jan. 5, it was seen as yet another ‘culture change’ move that eliminated more players that had not fit Jackson’s “learner or not a learner” ethos.
On Sunday afternoon, the duo returned to the Garden as members of a Cavaliers team that had won 15-of-17 heading into the game, while the Knicks remain mired at the bottom of the NBA standings. They couldn’t be happier with their new situation as they left the Garden as winners; capping off the 101-83 drubbing with a spectacular alley-oop with 9:14 left in the final quarter.
Shumpert dribbled outside the three-point line, then found Smith, who had slipped behind the defense to finish a double-clutch reverse alley-oop, leading to an immediate timeout.
“It felt great,” Smith said. “Honestly, it felt like the first time I actually met Shump — one of the first games we threw a double alley-oop, and to end it like we did, it was something special. You couldn’t have written it any better. The way we ended it, I think it was one for the books.”
Even head coach David Blatt, who referred to Smith as “a dream for us, as a team and for me personally” during the week, praised the former Knicks’ play during the timeout.
“I even told him in the timeout, ‘Thank you for the price of admission,’” Blatt said. “That was special, and really nice, too, that it was here in New York, a team where J.R. has been a part of. A lot of people appreciate what he’s done and what he does. I thought he played really, really well. That was great.”
Smith finished with 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting, while Shumpert added four with six assists.
The trade sent the pair to Cleveland in a three-team swap only yielded role players Lou Amundson and Lance Thomas, along with a 2019 second-round draft pick for the Knicks. It was seen as a cost-cutting move by Jackson, however, since their arrival, both players have contributed strongly for the Cavs.
“Our mind-sets have changed: as opposed to trying to get a win, to expecting to win every game we play,” Smith said post-game “Our whole total approach is different. Both of us feel rejuvenated.”
Smith admitted that the Triangle offense employed by the Knicks was not suited to his game, and alluded to the fact that New York would need to find players willing to adjust to fit it’s schemes.
“If you’re a freelancing player and you like to play up and down, it’s not going to suit your game,” Smith said. “If you like to play in the half court, move the ball and stuff like that and sacrifice, then it is your situation. It just depends.”
In the meantime, the two franchises are headed in opposite directions. The Cavs are firing on all cylinders – the looming addition of Kendrick Perkins will bolster their frontcourt – and are seemingly headed for a deep playoff run. The Knicks, well, their summer will be crucial. Phil Jackson will have about $30 million in cap space and the allure of New York to sell to free agents.
Shumpert says the current team woes won’t affect players decisions on coming to New York.
“Without a doubt. I mean, it’s New York,” Shumpert said when asked if he believes the Knicks still will be an attractive destination for free agents. “Of course, it’s been a tough year, but I don’t think anybody dislikes basketball now that they lost a few games.”
Feature image credit: Associated Press