Commentary

Shumpert, Smith trading places

The Knicks head to Game 3 in Indy with one swingman lost and one found

Updated: May 9, 2013, 9:47 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

By now you've probably seen the video replay. That oughta stop the knee questions. They were legitimate about Iman Shumpert once upon a time this season, but the Knicks' second-year swingman buried the topic for good on Tuesday by flying down the lane, cupping a missed shot by Chris Copeland in one hand and throwing down one of the more ferocious dunks you'll ever see -- and adding a scream while he was at it.

"I guess I was trying to make a statement," Shumpert said after he'd electrified a Madison Square Garden crowd that had been nervously dreading a possible 0-2 deficit to the Indiana Pacers, and after he'd heard his own teammates say something clicked on for them, too, after that second-quarter dunk of his.

[+] EnlargeIman Shumpert, David West
AP Photo/Mary AltafferIman Shumpert finished Game 2 with 15 points and one thunderous dunk.

"Unbelievable, incredible. … Nobody saw that coming from him," Carmelo Anthony said.

Whatever offensive magic J.R. Smith has lost, Shumpert has found.

Shumpert finished with 15 points, which is notable for a defense-first player like him, and the Knicks rolled to a 105-79 rout in Game 2.

The dunk was the best proof yet that he's almost completely recovered from ACL surgery that left him admitting Tuesday, "I know I didn't do as well as I could have [during the regular season], so I wanted to turn that up in the playoffs."

But just as importantly, Shumpert's game provided cover for at least a few more days for notoriously streaky teammate Smith, who seems to have lost his offensive game at the same time Shumpert's has been found.

The Knicks' ability to romp anyway proved that they can win even if just one of their two swingmen is scoring. But they'd rather have both.

Imagine if they had both.

What has made Smith's slump seem worse is there has been concern all season about whether he would remain a reliable No. 2 scoring option when the Knicks needed him most. And the start of his slump has exactly coincided with the sort of brain lock he had supposedly gotten past after winning the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award this season.

Smith has shot a lousy 15-for-57 from the field since his ejection and one-game suspension for elbowing Jason Terry in the Knicks' first-round series against Boston. He was ripped -- and rightly so -- for putting the Knicks in unnecessary jeopardy in that series. And he would've been called out again if the Knicks had lost Tuesday and fallen into an 0-2 hole against the Pacers.

"My shot is lost for now," Smith admitted after missing 12 of the 15 shots he launched Tuesday.

He'll drag a 7-for-30 line against the Pacers into Game 3 when the series resumes Saturday in Indianapolis.

Knowing Knicks coach Mike Woodson, he'll continue to allow Smith to try to shoot his way out of his slump, same as he refused to consider tweaking his small lineup even after the bigger Pacers pushed the Knicks around to win Game 1. But Smith's offensive problems can't be tolerated forever -- especially not on the road, where postseason wins are tougher to come by.

The Knicks' reliance on Smith has always created skepticism about their realistic chance of getting to the Eastern Conference finals, and winning. Anytime Smith relapses like this, the concern flares up all over again. It's even more notable when the contrast between Smith and the no-nonsense Shumpert is this stark.

If Shumpert can keep expanding his role from defensive stopper to offensive contributor, it will help the Knicks immeasurably in the short term. It could also create an interesting aside for the Knicks in the offseason, when Smith can become a free agent. The Knicks don't have a ton of significant salary-cap flexibility because of the money they've committed to Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire. The Knicks can't give Smith more than a four-year deal starting at about $5 million. It will be interesting to see what the Knicks and Smith do. Shumpert is younger, cheaper and more versatile, with none of the baggage Smith has.

As Pacers head coach Frank Vogel said Tuesday -- speaking about the Knicks in general, not Smith in particular -- "Their small lineup over the last six weeks of the season allowed them to be the best team in the NBA."

Miami might argue with Vogel's last few words, but there's no debating the Knicks' best small lineup has previously included Smith.

And yet the better Shumpert plays -- as Smith slumps -- the more minutes he deserves. And there's reason to believe what we're seeing, now that he's healthy again, is not just a player who's finally all the way back from knee surgery, but a rising player whose career seems poised to take off.

Even Woodson, who is extremely loyal to his players but stingy with over-the-top praise, noted Tuesday how much Shumpert's all-around game has improved.

"I can't help but think he is going to continue to roll and get better," Woodson said.

Now the Knicks go to Indiana with one swingman lost and one found.

Smith is the older of the two, but he'd do well to flush his mind of doubt and listen to something Shumpert said as he looked ahead to Game 3: "It's all about winning games … I am just living in the moment right now."

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