By J.M. Poulard
The evolution of the NBA has turned spacing into much more than a commodity, it’s now a means of a survival in the postseason.
There used to be a time in the not-so-distant-past where advancing during the playoffs meant that one had to dominate the paint, but the sport morphed before our eyes in a world where no team can truly contend for a championship without being able to shoot the lights out from numerous positions out on the floor.
The threat of the 3-point shot now opens up the court for post-ups, drives, isolations and misdirection plays, which interestingly enough, also leads to more open treys.
As a result, a player like Kyle Korver has never been more important. Other than perhaps Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, I’m not sure there is a better shooter in the world than Korver, and that ability is what prompted the Cleveland Cavaliers to acquire the 6’7’’ forward in a swap with the Atlanta Hawks.
Given that Cleveland already possessed the arguably top two isolation players in the league with Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, it stood to reason that opening up the floor for the tandem to operate would be of utmost importance come playoff time, and basketball aficionados had an opportunity to see it in the Cavs’ second-round four-game sweep of the Toronto Raptors.
Korver only averaged 10.3 points in the series, but his 55 percent shooting on treys against Toronto will likely give Raptors fans nightmares until the start of next season. The long-range sniper not only made defenses pay for losing track of him, he also made it easier for teammates to score.
Head coach Tyronn Lue called a brilliant contest in Game 4 against the Raptors, by slowly setting up Toronto with one adjustment after another with Korver on the floor. Watch here as the Cavs get him an open look:
It’s a fairly basic play. The Cavs fake a pick-and-roll with Tristan Thompson (to keep Jonas Valanciunas occupied in the paint just in case Deron Williams drives to the hoop), and then Thompson sets a screen for Korver who connects from distance. Cleveland essentially used Toronto’s defensive scheme against itself to get its best shooter free.
So what happened next?
Well, the Cavs flexed some smarts once again by having LeBron James screen for Korver on the wing. Given that Korver had already made a 3-pointer previously, the Raps were a little on edge with allowing him to get loose once more. So here’s what happens:
The best player on the court gets an uncontested dunk because two defenders ran out at Korver.
Again, premium spacing creates high-percentage looks for everyone involved in the offense. The fear of giving up the open shot from downtown allows James to get free, and it creates a conundrum for a Raptors team desperately searching for answers.
Focus on LeBron or Korver?
Keep in mind, Toronto ranked among the top eight defenses during the season, and yet, it had trouble figuring out whom to prioritize in sets run for Korver.
So what did Cleveland do? Run another play for him obviously:
Korver gets open on the play even though the Raptors switched on the screen. Indeed, the action happened so fast that P.J. Tucker lost his defensive assignment long enough for Korver to get free for another jumper.
These are the mind-bending decisions that opponents must reflect on.
The 36-year-old Korver might be in the latter stages of his career, but his presence forces defenses to re-think their core principles and schemes. It’s an incredibly tough task, especially when the Cavs are essentially trolling your defense.
Look at what happens the moment that LeBron knows that Toronto is now going to switch on his screen:
The basket did not count, but James quickly ducked into the paint and sealed DeMarre Carroll for what would have been an easy score if LeBron hadn’t been fouled before going into his shooting motion.
It’s not an impossible task, but slowing down the Cavs offense is a complicated proposition given all of the talent and spacing the roster has to offer.
LeBron and Kyrie are special players that force the opposition to send help their way, and the likes of J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Channing Frye and Korver end up pulling that help right back. Thus, it’s not at all surprising that Cleveland boasts the top offense in the playoffs as it heads off into the Eastern Conference Finals because of plays like these that blend all of their strengths together:
The coaching staff knew that the design of their isolation would work because of the players involved.
“In that fourth quarter I just went to iso at the elbow for Kyrie,” Lue said, per the Akron Beacon Journal’s Marla Ridenour. “Getting it to him, clearing out, bringing Kyle off the double and they’d give Kyrie a live dribble at the elbow, where he’s virtually unstoppable.”
Lue was certainly right, and then some.
Take another few seconds to re-watch that video, and what should jump off screen after one sees the beautiful move by Irving is that Korver is wide-open for a corner 3-pointer.
As Kyrie starts to dance with the ball, every defender tries to stay within close proximity of their player to make sure they do not surrender an open shot from downtown. However, as Irving waltz into the paint, DeRozan completely loses track of Korver. Irving gets the spectacular hoop, and yet, there was another option available.
Keep this iso set in mind should the Cavs face off against the Washington Wizards or Boston Celtics in the next round. It could be another way to free up Korver and consequentially manufacture more spacing.
The Cavs are a difficult bunch to beat when they are generating open long-range looks, and the addition of Korver to a team that won the title last season will give Cleveland a great chance to defend its crown.
Count the Raptors coach as a believer.
“That team presents so many problems, shooting and the way they were making shots and some of them were well guarded,” Casey said following the game. “Korver is one we take credit for because we fell asleep in the second quarter and he came off too clean in a couple of situations. But they were making shots that were well covered, hand in their face.”
In the event James and Co. do advance to the Finals, one would assume they would face off against the Golden State Warriors – owners of the best record during the regular season and also the favorites to win it all – in a matchup that would also feature Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant.
As it stands right now, the teams with the best combinations of incredibly dynamic players and premium spacing – Cavs and Warriors – are both undefeated in these playoffs and seem headed on a collision course.
Golden State and Cleveland’s top players will certainly have a say in determining which team wins the championship this year, and so too will Korver, the Cavs’ top floor spacer.