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J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and unlocking the full potential of the Cavs

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The Cavaliers' two shooting guards are key to unlock their full potential.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Cavs are clicking right now. And that goes beyond their relatively impressive sweep of a surprisingly capable Detroit Pistons team with a bright future, and the three-point showcase they used to dismantle the Hawks with in Game 2. The ball has moved, they’ve weathered storms, teammates have been on the same page, and, most importantly, LeBron hasn’t shot laser stares into the back of his teammates skulls out of frustration.

The Cavs have hit another gear, and it has been mostly what you’ve seen from the perpetually-criticized big three. Kevin Love looks aggressive and confident, Kyrie Irving looks like a patient killer and LeBron seems like a sage, weaving in and out of bursts of video game-like scoring and floor general prowess. At this point, you know what you’re getting from Tristan Thompson — great offensive rebounding, quick feet and a physicality that earns him easy buckets and a status as an underrated defender. Which leaves us with the position with the widest basement/ceiling ratio: shooting guard, featuring a red-hot JR Smith,  and a great defender who has been struggling a bit to find his offensive groove in Iman Shumpert. Let’s take a look at how they’ve each impacted the playoffs so far, and how they can help the Cavs unlock their full potential.

J.R. Smith

J.R. Smith was widely looked on as the throw in — some even called him the tax — to land Shumpert in the Dion Waiters trade. What good would trading a hyper-aggressive ball stopper with an unstable shot selection do for a hyper-aggressive ball stopper with an unstable shot selection? But, he’s really fallen in line as a spot-up shooting role player that feeds off of the space given to him by the big three. On the season, he shot a highly-respectable 40 percent from three, but during the four game sweep over Detroit, he shot 51.5 percent, and then a blistering 57.1 percent in game two against the Hawks, hitting 7-13 from behind the arc. Here’s his shot chart so far through six games in the playoffs:

And, a lot of the shots he’s been hitting have been relatively contested, or simplistic school-yard, feed-the-hot-hand-type plays and, on a few, he’s created his own opportunities, especially late in the shot clock. Here, you can see the Hawks pinning the Cavs extremely far from the paint late in the shot clock, but after swinging by a pick from Love, Smith using a drop back to create some space against a big, squares up and hits what ends up being a really good look.

The higher the level that Love, LeBron and Irving play at, the more momentum Smith seems to gain. He doesn’t necessarily have to fill up the box score, but they can get him good looks early. He doesn’t necessarily have to let it fly for the Cavs to jump out to big leads, but sometimes his heat checks can float the team toward a blow out. And that’s what JR has done so well for this team: he’s adapted.

Sure, he’ll always carry that gun-slinger swagger, and you can probably always expect an irrational shot one out of eight times, but he’s been a lot more careful and selective, and has thrown effort toward being the sort of defender that goes a long way as a wing in the modern NBA. Right now, we’re seeing what a consistently productive Smith does for what the Cavs are working toward.

A player outside of the big three throwing points on you that quickly and relentlessly is hell on wheels for an opposing defense. I mean, we’ve certainly seen it sporadically throughout the last two years, but as it’s aligning with a currently healthy Cavs in the post-season, it looks particularly dangerous. As of now, it’s certainly a small and shiny sample size, and he’ll fall back to earth, but to make a run at this thing, he’s going to have to keep out-Kyle Korver-ing Kyle Korver, even after Korver goes home.

Iman Shumpert

Certainly the less interesting of the two primary shooting guards right now, but a player who, with the right production — although, offensively, that’s been few and far between this year — could push the Cavs over the edge of where they need to be to bring a trophy home. Shumpert hasn’t developed into the offensive threat that the Cavs probably hoped he would become, but he’s a great on-ball and help defender, who locks down jumper shooters and swipes slashers. During the regular season, he only averaged 5.8 points per game, and, even less encouraging, he shot 29.5 percent from three, a figure that’s trending in the wrong direction — it’s the lowest of his career — when you’re sharing the floor with so many explosive players who can frequently earn you good looks.And, in general, there wan’t too much that was pretty about his regular season shot chart.

But, then he has moments where you see flashes, like here, in the first round, where he steals the ball directly after the inbound, passes, spots up and knocks down a three.

Shumpert's true value though won’t be tested until the Finals assuming the Cavs make it there. Throughout the rest of the Eastern Conference, he’ll be able to coast through as a solid defender and a selective shot taker, but whether it’s the Warriors, the Spurs or the Thunder, the Cavs are going to need their second best wing defender on the floor, and he’s also going to have to make that team pay when they leave a cushion on him in an attempt to control the Cavs’ high-powered weapons. I’d like to see a lot of a Kyrie/Smith/Shumpert/ LeBron/Love line-up that abuses teams on the offensive end and still has two great wing defenders on the other, or a Kyrie/Smith/Shumpert/LeBron/TT lineup that can defend, run, rebound, and still shoot well, or even a wildcard Kyrie/Delly/Smith/Shumpert/LeBron thrown at Golden State’s small ball squad, but Shumpert’s the key to unlocking the full potential of those line-ups.