CHICAGO - Near the end of the game that would propel the Cavaliers into the Eastern Conference finals, J.R. Smith walked over to Iman Shumpert and reflected on what has been a wild season and unexpected turn of events for them.
They began the season with the Knicks and were expected to be a key part of what team president Phil Jackson believed would be a playoff team. But with the Knicks on their way to the worst season in franchise history, Jackson sent Smith and Shumpert to Cleveland in January.
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The Knicks got cap space, a 2019 second-round pick and a trade exception and the Cavaliers got two key players who helped them to a series-clinching 94-73 rout of the Bulls Thursday night in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
The Cavaliers will play the winner of the Hawks-Wizards series in the conference finals.
"I told Shump, 'Man, we came a long way,' " Smith said. "From being where we were at, with the guys we were with, to be switched over like this and the situation we're in now, it's an unbelievable opportunity. We just got to make the best of it no matter what the case is."
Smith later posted a split-shot picture on Instagram of he and Shumpert in Knicks and Cavs' jerseys with the words "One man's trash is another man's treasure."
LeBron James, who shot 7-for-23, had 15 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds, but it was Shumpert and Smith who ignited a 20-4 run to end the first half.
Unheralded backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova, playing big minutes after Kyrie Irving was limited to 12 first-half minutes because of a left knee injury, led the Cavs with 19 points. Tristan Thompson had 13 points and 17 rebounds. Shumpert added 13 points and Smith 12.
It was a one-point game in the second quarter when Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic clotheslined Shumpert and stood over him. Mirotic was whistled for a flagrant foul and lit a fire under Shumpert and the Cavs. "That wasn't smart," Shumpert said. "I didn't like that at all. There was no need for it. To stand over me, that wasn't smart."
Shumpert and Smith accounted for 15 of Cleveland's last 17 points in the second quarter. The Cavs led 58-44 at halftime and never let the Bulls cut their deficit under 13 in what could have been Tom Thibodeau's last game as the Bulls' coach.
The Bulls were considered a team that could beat the Cavaliers and derail James' chances of reaching the NBA Finals for the fifth straight season. But the usually hard-nosed Bulls didn't put up much of a fight.
They wasted an opportunity to extend this series with James struggling, Irving a spectator for most of the game and Kevin Love out after undergoing shoulder surgery. But James set up his teammates with his passing and they came through. "We're tougher than we thought," Smith said. "The way we played, the way we persevered, mentally we're tougher as well."
The Bulls scored 33 points in the last 30:37 and looked like a team shaken by all the rumblings and unrest inside their organization. Thibodeau has clashed with Bulls management and it has been widely reported that he might not return despite posting a 255-139 record in five seasons.
He wouldn't be unemployed for long. The Pelicans and Magic have openings and likely would pursue the former Knicks assistant.
"Until they tell me I'm not, I expect to be here," Thibodeau said. "That's the way I'm approaching it."