2018 Playoffs | Eastern Conference Finals: Celtics (2) vs. Cavaliers (4)

How Kyle Korver, 3-point shooters go, so go Cleveland Cavaliers

Long-range shooting has never been more important in the NBA, especially for a Cavs team seeking its fourth straight trip to The Finals

BOSTON – When Kyle Korver’s game is on, when his catch-and-release is as swift as a corrupt magistrate’s and his 3-point shot so fine it doesn’t rustle the net, there’s a stealthy quality to it bordering on the sneaky.

It is sniper’s work, done from afar and bloodless except for its impact. Korver shoots and, as often as not, by the time the damage is done, he’s heading the other way, scurrying up one sideline or the other, easy to miss if you aren’t watching closely.

“Stealthy? Huh. I suppose, maybe, there’s something to that,” Korver said, sitting courtside at TD Garden Monday morning in advance of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ off-day workout.

Well, it wasn’t exactly stealthy in Game 1 Sunday. As snipers go, Korver and his cohorts would have been guilty of friendly fire, damaging Cleveland’s effort in the opener of the Eastern Conference finals against Boston with a 4-for-26 spraying, including an 0-for-14 start.

Whether those shots are dropping or not, though, Korver’s game is predicated on getting lost by the defense. He wants to shed his man and be as neglected as possible until it’s too late.

“That’s kind of how I’ve always played,” the veteran of 15 NBA seasons said. “Especially on the kind of team we have. If we can pull attention away from the basket, that gives our guys room to operate. Especially LeBron, and Kevin on postups. That’s a lot of what I’m asked to do on this team and that’s the way I’ve played a good part of my career, too. Find the cracks out there.”

Korver, 37, has made a living from that, and an efficient one at that. He ranks fourth all-time in 3-point field goals (2,213), behind only Ray Allen, Reggie Miller and Jason Terry. His career accuracy – 43.1 percent – ranks sixth and he has launched more shots from the arc (5,130) than any of those ahead of him on that list.

But wait, there’s more: Korver’s value to winning basketball is backed up by his splits. In the regular season, Cleveland went 31-15 when he made at least two 3-pointers. When he played but made one or none, the Cavaliers were 12-15. In the playoffs? They are 6-1 with at least two Korver 3-pointers, 2-3 so far with fewer.

Korver played in 73 games this season. In the 43 victories, he shot 49.1 percent on 3-pointers. In the 30 defeats, just 35.9 percent. The pattern holds for his career, just a little less pronounced: 46 percent in victories, 39 percent in losses.

So Korver going 1-for-5 Sunday at TD Garden – along with J.R. Smith, Kevin Love and George Hill combining for 2-for-9 – meant the Cavs were in trouble even without a glance at the scoreboard.

“Three-point shots are a part of our DNA,” said LeBron James, who missed all five of his shots from distance. “It’s what makes us the best team that we can be. Even early on with the shots that we had, we had some wide-open looks that just didn’t go.

“We’re OK with that. We’re absolutely OK with that.”

Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue’s lineup for Game 1 was his preferred group: James, Love, Korver, Smith and Hill, which puts four deep threats around the defense-busting, attention-hoarding James. That might change, though, for Game 2. Boston had it too easy at the rim, romping to a 60-38 advantage in points in the paint.

So it’s possible Lue will start big man Tristan Thompson at center or at least boost his minutes from the 21 he played Sunday. That would shift Love to power forward, push Korver or Smith to the bench and give the Cavs a more traditional look.

Just for the record: When the Cavaliers have won this season, they have averaged 13.2 3-pointers on 41.1 percent shooting. When they’ve lost, it’s been 10.0 treys on 31.1 percent.

It could be a matter of picking one’s poison. Does Cleveland want to risk getting outscored by 22 points inside again or by 21 points (the Celtics sank 11) from the arc?

“I don’t think you turn away from it,” Korver said. “The playoffs are a chess match, with adjustments every game. You’re not going to reinvent yourself in the middle of a playoff series. We know who we are and where we’ve been. But Tristan’s been a big part of that, too.”

Korver said the number of 3-point shooters on the floor at one time isn’t the issue for Cleveland. Having the ones who are out there make shots and getting off to a better start matters more. Three minutes into Game 1, the Celtics went on a 17-0 run and outscored the Cavs by 21 the rest of the quarter.

“It’s hard when you get down. You start pressing a little bit trying to get back in the game,” Korver said.

Are shots harder to make when your team is down a ton, Korver was asked. “That’s a game-by-game thing,” he said. “Sometimes when you’re down that happens. The correct mindset is supposed to be ‘Chip away, chip away, chip away.’ But sometimes when you’re down, you’re like, ‘Let’s get this going.’ I had a couple looks early that maybe were a little quick.”

Smith talked after Game 1 of the Boston players’ length defensively, giving them the ability to close gaps and contest shots that might otherwise be available. Korver pointed more to the Celtics sniffing out and thwarting the Cavaliers’ first options, with Cleveland slow to get into Plans B or C. As for defense, the Cavs might want to play it with some verve whether their last shot dropped or not.

There’s nothing wrong with the shooting background at TD Garden, Korver said. And his team’s main players have all the experience they need on this stage.

“Every game is its own thing in the playoffs,” said Korver, who has appeared in 121 postseason games across 12 years. “When you’re in them long enough, you understand. If a playoff series goes six or seven games, it’s like a rollercoaster. Your emotions are so up, then they’re so down. ‘You can’t do anything right! Then everything’s going your way!’

“So it’s important for us to stay level-headed. They have the Game 1 win, whether it was 25 or it was by two. We feel like we can play a lot better.”

So many fans and media folks define Cleveland’s playoff runs by James, who has a personal stranglehold on the Eastern Conference dating back through 2011. But others have skin in this game, too. Korver took it hard when the Cavaliers got ousted in five games from The Finals last June by Golden State. These opportunities eventually end, sooner when you’re already 37.

“I’ve never won the last game of my season,” Korver said, staring off into middle distance for a moment. “On any level, I’ve never won the last game. Offseasons hurt when you lose the last game.”

Korver averaged just 4.4 points in the 2017 Finals, making 5 of 16 3-pointers (31.3 percent) and 3 of 12 as the Warriors grabbed 3-0 control of the championship series.

“It definitely hit something a little deeper than usual,” he said. “After you’ve played that long and then you have this emotional …”

Here, Korver imitated the sound of something big imploding.

“You have this minute where you’re, like, drained,” he said. “But then I think too, coming into a new year with this team, seeing what your role’s going to be, seeing where your shots are going to come, you try to find new places where you can get looks. You’ve got to find new places where you can be active.”

Korver’s season was tumultuous. In addition to the drama instigated by Kyrie Irving’s trade request, its emotional aftermath and eventually a convulsive transformation of the roster at the February trade deadline, the veteran shooter was hampered by a nagging right foot injury. And then – blowing everything basketball related out of the water – the death of his 27-year-old brother Kirk from a sudden illness in March.

Korver has worked through that with his faith and his family, with basketball as an escape and diversion too. He spoke more about the intricacies of bobbing, weaving, cutting and finding ways to get open.

“A lot of times, I’ve felt – you talked about roaming the sidelines – like I’ve got to find ways to cross the court,” he said. “I’ve got to find new ways to be in and out. Even if it’s not me shooting, but just moving and setting screens. Stay active. Stay involved. That’s important for me.

“Otherwise you stand there waiting, and you’re trying to catch a rocket and shoot real fast. Sometimes that goes well, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a hard thing to do. That’s my job.”

After Game 2 of the first round, when LeBron James repeatedly bull-rushed his way to the rim, scored 16 consecutive points early and got 46 overall to restore equilibrium for Cleveland, Indiana coach Nate McMillan almost sounded fine with that. Applying the NBA’s new math, at least that meant McMillan’s opponent was scoring by 2s rather than 3s.

“I think there’s a lot of team philosophies that would say yes to that,” Korver said. “Today’s NBA is, ‘Make ‘em shoot a contested 2. Don’t let guys get 3s.’ It’s amazing, because you watch somebody like LeBron seemingly scoring at will some days, getting whatever he wants in the paint. But a lot of teams will be OK with that.”

The same when Toronto’s C.J. Miles didn’t dare help off Korver in the left corner in Game 3 of the conference semis, even as James veered close for his wide-angle bank shot off the glass.

“People don’t want to give up corner 3s ever,” Korver said. That’s not just (to) me, it’s everyone. Offensive strategy is to put someone in the corner so it spreads things for other guys. It’s a big part of what offense is in the NBA today.”

It’s the style Cleveland must maintain, as stealthily as possible.

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

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