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Hawks need Korver free for 3-pointers to have chance

Smothered by Cavs' J.R. Smith, he got off one shot in Game 1

POSTED: May 3, 2016 7:42 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Hawks-Cavaliers: Game 2 Preview

Isiah, Matt and Dennis recap Game 1 and look ahead to Game 2 between the Hawks and Cavaliers Wednesday night at 8pm EST.

Kyle Korver ran around and through the Atlanta Hawks' offense as if herding chickens.

This way. That way. Cutting behind his big buddies in the Hawks' frontcourt, doing what he could to scrape Cleveland defenders off their picks. Shifting into another gear to tear around the perimeter, downshifting in the hope a trailing Cavalier might fly by. In miles logged and effort expended, it was a typically exhausting performance for Korver in Game 1.

Except that this time, he didn't need to ice his right arm.

In nearly 37 minutes in Atlanta's 104-93 loss in the opener of the teams' Eastern Conference semifinal series, the veteran sniper with game-changing range and a penchant for hitting timely shots got up only one field-goal attempt.

How rare was that? In Korver's previous 1,051 NBA regular-season and playoff games prior to Monday, he never had played more than 18 minutes -- half his Game 1 total -- while taking one or fewer shots. Regardless of minutes, it had happened only 16 times since the 35-year-old's rookie season a dozen years ago and just twice since he joined the Hawks in 2012.

J.R. Smith stayed close enough to Korver that they knew what each other had for lunch. And when it wasn't Smith in the buddy system, there was LeBron James in hot pursuit, a fourth-quarter look that showed how committed Cleveland was to sticking with this plan.

Hawks vs. Cavaliers: Game 1

LeBron James heats up for 25 points with 9 assists as the Cavaliers take Game 1 over the Hawks, 104-93.

"It's the game in between the games that people don't see," James said. "We have a scouting report and we follow that scouting report for 48 minutes."

Said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue: "We want to make sure we lock into Korver. ... When we take him out of the game, they have a tough time scoring. We know in the [Boston] series, he was a plus-78 when he was on the floor and a minus-24 when he was off the floor. He's a big part of what they do and we have to lock into him and try to take him out of the series."

That's high praise for a guy who essentially is a role player, to make him a focal point of Cleveland's defensive game plan. From the Atlanta side, we keep hearing, "We want to turn LeBron into a jump shooter." From Cleveland, it's "We want to make sure Korver isn't a jump shooter."

"I guess in some ways it is [a compliment]," Korver said Tuesday after the Hawks' practice on the Cleveland State University campus. "But you can't just accept that. I've still got to find ways to help out the team."

There are two ways for Korver and the Hawks to respond: Allow the Cavaliers to turn their top 3-point threat into a decoy and make them pay elsewhere for that defensive over-emphasis. Or concoct plays that will catch Cleveland unawares and spring Korver loose for looks somewhere around that perimeter.

Schroder Scores Playoff High

Dennis Schroder goes off for a playoff career-high 27 points in the Hawks loss.

"We tend to just take what's available and let the offense go to the other guys," coach Mike Budenholzer said. "If you're playing somewhat of a 4-on-4 game, the looks and opportunities for everybody else should be high quality."

The problem with that is, the Hawks' top two scorers have been off. Paul Millsap, with the exception of his uncharacteristic 45-point outburst, is averaging 11.7 points on 34.8 percent shooting in six other playoff games. Al Horford is at 12.1 points on 41.3 percent shooting. That's a decline of 8.5 points from Millsap's and Horford's regular-season output, lost points Atlanta cannot afford against the defending East champs.

"It's a challenge for sure," Korver said. "I felt like they were aware of where I was any time I was about to come off [screens]. I'll watch the film and try to see where there's a couple more openings. And be a little bit more aggressive and do a little better."

The tactics from the Cavaliers aren't new, Korver said, though we're stuck with a small sample size for playoff comparisons. Korver lasted only into Game 2 of the East finals against Cleveland last year before Matthew Dellavedova's clumsy hustle got in the way of Korver's right ankle, his dive for a loose ball sending Korver into offseason surgery.

"They've done it for a couple years," he said. "They are a very smart team. They're really good at it. It's why they're one of the best in the NBA, if not the best. They know what they're doing. They're on a string. So it's a definite challenge."

Fact is, Korver -- who said he took a sleeping pill Monday night to avoid tossing and turning over his performance -- was just as good against Cleveland in 2015-16 as he was against the rest of the NBA. He averaged 10.3 points against the Cavs vs. 9.2 overall and hit eight of his 16 3-pointers vs. 39.4 percent accuracy against everybody else.

I think it's up to us, especially the bigs, to set better screens and get him open shots

– Hawks' Paul Millsap

And while Korver was getting blanked in Game 1, his counterpart Smith was hitting four of his 3-point attempts. That helped Cleveland to 15-of-31 shooting from the arc, compared to Atlanta's 11-of-34, and that is a fulcrum on which this series might hinge.

Cleveland is 47-15 this season, including the playoffs, when it makes more 3-pointers than its opponent. That means they're a more mortal 15-10 when they do not. Similarly, Atlanta is 38-18 when it has the edge from the arc vs. 14-19 when it doesn't.

Shaking Korver loose to launch his seven or eight 3-pointers nightly, then, would seem rather important. Even when he doesn't make them, he creates space in the defense. And when he does, it's even better: his teams are 9-4 in the playoffs when Korver makes four or more 3-pointers in a game.

"I think it's up to us, especially the bigs, to set better screens and get him open shots," Millsap said. "I think Kyle knows what he needs to do to find some more looks. When he's contributing, that's when we're at our best."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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