When the Eastern Conference semifinals matchup between the Cleveland Cavs and Chicago Bulls played out in the Cavs favor, two former Knicks had the last laugh and were pivotal in sending D Rose, Joakim Noah and the hopeful Bulls squadron home for the summer.
On a night when Kyrie Irving only played 12 minutes and had to depart with another leg injury after scoring just six points and a nicked up King James...King Midas..whatever you want to call the man -- was an ugly 7-of-23 and Kevin Love continues to play spectator and contemplate what could have been -- two castaways from the disease infested lands of Madison Square Garden put themselves in the middle of an invigorating championship run that’s as healthy for the state of Ohio as a garden salad and a glass of water.
Late in the third quarter of Cleveland's 94-73, ECSF-clinching thumping of Chi-Town, Cavs guard J.R. Smith -- the enigmatic and often maligned, but always down to put one in the air gunner -- banged two crucial three-pointers as the third period expired and the Bulls' promising season slipped away like it has every season since MJ left.
What a difference a year makes for Iman Shumpert and Smith. Smith, formerly known as the NBA's most talented knucklehead and young "Shump" were considered "damaged goods" on a booty Knicks team. Now these guys are go-to types on a World Championship Tour with King James and The Nomads; on some Dialated Peoples sh*t.
Shumpert was a defensive stopper and athletic marvel who wrecked his knee in his rookie season in 2012 and never regained the explosiveness and promise he once had.
When Smith arrived in Cleveland his character hadn't changed much, but the fact that he went from a No. 2 option with the Knicks to a Vinnie Johnson type with the Cavs and saw championship basketball as a real option for the first time, seemed to give him a sharper sense of purpose (if not focus).
It also endeared him to King James, who loves having a loopy killer on his squad who will mix it up with the opposition. That’s always been Smith. He has the power and the poison. The man is like a 100-pound baby handling a bunny rabbit and continuously ripping off its head while trying to play with it. He doesn’t know his own strength.
When Smith and Shump arrived in Cleveland as offerings to LeBron's plea for upgrades, they brought their usual array of crossovers, alley oops, fadeaway treys and aggressive defensive stands. This has proved invaluable to Cleveland who was lacking that kind of defensive energy, athleticism and multi-faceted offensive firepower to begin the season.
Plus, everybody likes you better and values your game more when you play with King James.
Of course Smith also brought some head-scratching moments with him. The thing about JR is he's like a toxic chemical that you have to keep balanced. Too much of any one ingredient causes him to explode and threatens the safety of everyone around him. He's not a guy you want to have to overly rely on, but when Kevin Love went down for the playoffs, naturally Smith's responsibilities increased, as did Shumpert’s when Irving became hobbled. Both have seized the moment.
Last night was another one those brilliant flashes that fuel the roller coaster and love-hate relationship Smith has with any fan base that has to deal with him. When both offenses were stagnant Smith did what he's paid to do and scored six of the Cavs' 15 points in a decisive third quarter when the Bulls were desperately trying to salvage their season. Let's not forget his late three-pointers in Game 3, which were negated by D Rose's buzzer beater. And his Game 4 spurt, scoring 11 of his 13 points in the crunchtime 4th.
Initially, it seemed as if JR was up to his old playoff tricks again when he was suspended for the first two games of the Bulls series for an elbow to the head of Celtics forward Jae Crowder during the third quarter of the Cav's Game 4 win in Boston.
During his tenure with the Knicks, Smith gained the rep of "team playoff obliterator" because of the way he picked the most crucial times to pop off and lose his cool. This isn't the first time that Smith has gotten in trouble for a dirty postseason play against the Celtics. In 2013, when Smith was a member of a Knicks squad that won 54 games and the Atlantic Division title, he was suspended one game for hitting Boston guard Jason Terry in the face during a first round series between the two teams.
Before being suspended Smith was excellent, shooting 48 percent, including 4-of-9 from 3-point range. After getting suspended in Game 5 of that series, Smith shot just 28.6 % from the field for the rest of the playoffs. NY squeezed past the Celtics but were easily eliminated from the playoffs by the Indiana Pacers in six games. Revelations about the cause of Smith's terrible play came from none other than the star-hopper of R-N-B, Rihanna, who claims that Smith had been hanging out and partying too much and was hungover. Smith was even pictured partying at a Manhattan Club with the musical diva.
For many Knicks fans, that suspension marked the beginning of a vicious downward spiral for the team, which led to the arrival of Phil Jackson and Derrick Fisher, the cleaning of the MSG cupboard and the lottery pick aspirations the Knicks currently have today.
Early in these playoffs, it seemed as if Smith was spreading that same schizophrenic love to a Cleveland team that needed him to fly straight.
Said Smith: "I've been in this situation before in the playoffs, and it's not a good feeling to go into a new team, new situation feeling like you're coming on the up-and-up and to be quote-unquote back in this situation again is nothing I want to happen," Smith said. "And unfortunately, my team is going to pay for it more than anything."
Yeah like the Knicks and Melo and Mike Woodson paid in 2013. Only time will tell if he's the "kind of guy you can win a c'hip with."
With that dude, you really have to take it game by game, but he does seem to fit this team at this time. So does Shumpert, who chipped in 13 points on Thursday night to help Cleveland advance to The Eastern Conference Finals. They await the winner of the Atlanta Hawks-Washington series, which the Hawks lead 3-2 and can wrap up tonight.
I don’t see any Eastern Conference squad stopping Cleveland's flow at this point. Even with a hobbled Irving, the Cavs have a certain grit that King James doesn't provide by himself. He’s aided in his task by two castaways from a forgotten basketball Mecca who are finally getting the chance to flex their skills on the highest stage… and maybe even be labeled "winners" when it’s all said and done.