Back in January of 2014, it was hard to imagine then-New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith putting on the type of shooting performance he displayed for the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. When he bent down and nonchalantly pulled on Shaun Marion’s shoe string while the two players stood next to each other during free throw—a move that would eventually garner him a suspension—it was impossible to picture him as one of the biggest keys to the Cavs’ 2015 post-season run.
The same can be said for Iman Shumpert during the first half of the 2014-2015 NBA season. Relegated to wearing a business suit and occupying a reserved seat at the end of the Knicks’ bench due to a dislocated shoulder, Shumpert was an afterthought on a floundering team.
After a January 2015 trade, the two maligned players found themselves in Cleveland , where both have found new life. In Game 1 against the Hawks, Smith knocked down eight 3-pointers (a Cavs’ playoff record) on an assortment of twisting, step-back shots with a hand or two in his face. For Cleveland, Shumpert has been the defensive wizard the Knicks always hoped he would be, swiping at the ball like a tiger swipes at his prey and prying it loose before his opponent even knows what happened.
The opportunity to play for a contender after toiling away on the dysfunctional Knicks certainly played a part in the two teammates’ rebirth, but the talent was always there. Shumpert and Smith have honed their skills as hard as anyone in the league.
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Smith’s ability to find open shots during games is a product of his preparation. He likes to run off screens and free himself to pull up for a 3, though the man they call Swish doesn’t need much space to get his shot off.
In the above drill—part of a series he did for Nike basketball—Smith works on coming off a “pin down” screen, using a chair in place of a screener. This drill helps Smith square up his body and be ready to shoot immediately off a screen, something he’s excelled at with the Cavaliers.
Here’s an example from Game 1, when Smith used a pin down screen to get open on an inbounds play and knock down a trey. In this screenshot, you can see Smith, using a screen from Tristan Thompson, catch the ball and immediately square his shoulders.
Watch the play all the way through and notice how quickly Smith gets into his shot after catching the ball.
Another of Smith’s deadliest moves is the step-back, in which he shows his defender a few dribbles before stepping back behind the 3-point line and burying a 3. It may look like Smith is making the shot more difficult than it needs to be, but the rhythm of the move helps him knock down the shot. He’s almost better shooting on the move than he is when set and wide-open. Here, Smith, as a member of the Knicks, shows how he gets into the step-back.
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Most of Smith’s 3-point barrage against the Hawks came from step-backs. Here’s a devastating one that his defender, Jeff Teague, had absolutely no chance to stop.
Finally, Smith performs a shooting drill that he calls “shoot and retreat,” in which he runs from half court to the 3-point line, shoots, backpedals and does it again. This drill mimics how he moves when he’s out in transition, and helps him practice stopping on a dime before pulling up and draining a 3 while his defender is still in backpedal mode.
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Here’s Smith executing the transition 3-pointer to perfection in a Cavs game earlier this season.
As for Shumpert, the dude has been working on his defensive stance and footwork for a looooong time. We unearthed this video from his time at Georgia Tech, where Shumpert worked through his footwork and lateral movements with the rest of the team.
His defense has paid off immensely through 11 games of the Playoffs. Per nba.com, he’s holding the man he guards to just 38.5 percent from the field and 26 percent from beyond the arc, stats that reflect a huge component of how the Cavs will defend Hawks marksman Kyle Korver throughout the Eastern Conference Finals.
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Offensively, Shump has excelled at midrange shots, especially the pull-up variety. He’s shooting 5o percent on 2-pointers when he pulls up after one or two dribbles, and 55 percent overall. In the video below, he works on a jab step before pulling up to hit a jumper from just inside the 3-point line, over and over again.
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And here’s Shumpert pulling up for almost the exact same shot he worked on.
Shumpert and Smith have been putting in the work for years. And although it shone through at different times earlier in their careers, their roles on the Cleveland Cavaliers have allowed them to use their skills in ways that keep them in their comfort zones. The work is evident. The execution is now front and center.