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How the Celtics shut down the best shooter in the NBA

A great defensive gameplan and effort helped the Celtics contain newly appointed all-star Kyle Korver this week.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Korver is having a monster year. He just made his first all-star team, and is on pace for possibly the greatest shooting season ever. In his previous three games against Boston, he averaged over 19 points per game and 70% shooting from three. On one of the first possessions of the game, Korver broke straight for the left corner on a fast break. He then knocked down an open three before any Celtic could contest the shot. It looked like this game had the makings of another star performance from Korver. However, after that first bucket he was held without another made field goal for the rest of the night. How were the Celtics able to accomplish this? It all starts with off-ball defense.

Defending Korver

A split second of forgetting where Korver is on the court can lead to an easy three points. That's why the main key is sticking close to him. The less space he has, the harder it is to get off a shot, or even receive a pass. It's common to see defenders pressed on him in the corner with the ball-hander barely past the half-court line. After his first shot, the Celtics did a much better job of picking Korver up in transition. This possession starts with Bradley closely covering Korver at least 20 feet away from the next closest player.


Dealing with off-ball screens is a huge task when defending Korver as well. Korver is an active player on the offensive end, so he's moving around picks often. When the screener comes, the defender has to stay tight and fight over the pick. Tayshuan Prince does a great job of that here. He doesn't allow Korver to get a clean look, and forces him to pass it off to Horford.

Prince defense

Later in the possession, Prince recovers to contest a good look from the right corner. Prince's lengthy wingspan really helps here. He fully extends to force Korver into missing the shot.

Prince contest

When Korver did break free from his defender, Boston did a good job of rotating to him to prevent open shots. Korver uses a nice shove to create space from James Young. This gives him a clean opening for a shot. But, Avery Bradley makes an excellent read on the play to meet Korver at the spot. Bradley's closing speed is key in avoiding the pick and switching onto Korver here. He gets there quick enough to prevent Korver from even getting the pass.

bradley young switch

This was another great play by Bradley. Evan Turner gets engulfed by the double screen, leaving Korver with plenty of space. Bradley reacts immediately after Jeff Teague throws the pass and sprints over to pick up Korver. Korver can't get off an attempt and is forced to swing the ball back to Teague. It takes great awareness and effort by Bradley to disrupt the Atlanta offense like this.

bradley hustles

These are small plays if taken individually. Most of them don't even end up officially recorded in the stat book. But they add up over the course of a game. Preventing open shots is an important and effective way to limit a shooter's impact. There are countless examples in this game of players giving the extra effort chasing down Korver on defense. It takes great focus and discipline from the defense to accomplish this task.

Other Challenges With Guarding Korver

Kyle Korver's impact stretches further than just shooting. He requires so much attention on the offensive end that it changes how teams are able to defend. It's rare to see defenders cheat off him when he's setup in the corners, which creates more space for the offense. Zach Lowe of Grantland had a nice explainer of Korver's "gravity" in this article on him from last year:

"[Gravity score] measures how often defenders are really guarding a particular player away from the ball. Korver had the fourth-highest score, ... "distraction score" - is a related attempt to measure how often a player's defender strays away from him to patrol the on-ball action. Korver had the lowest such score in the league."

This impact is evident when Korver sets picks. Here, it looks like a straightforward play for Korver to cut across the court for a pass. Instead of that, he sets a down screen to free up Al Horford for a wide open shot. Bradley has his back turned to the ball because he's on Korver so tight. By the time Marcus Smart sees this it's too late, and Horford knocks down the jumper.

korver down screen

This is another look that the Hawks ran using Korver as a decoy. It is setup to look like a two man screen for him to use. But Korver keeps moving after the pick and screens James Young. Bradley follows him, which leaves Kent Bazemore open for a three. This is a great design because it punishes the defense for sticking so close to Korver. Tayshaun Prince couldn't get there in time and Bazemore converted the wide open attempt.

korver frees up bazemore

These are just small examples of how difficult it is to defend the Hawks. Their offense is always moving. Covering Korver tight opens up things for other players on the court so it's a constant balancing act to defend them. The defense has to keep adjusting throughout the game to counter whatever Atlanta does.

The one factor I haven't focused on is luck in regards to his missed shots. The majority of his misses were open shots, which is pretty lucky from a defensive perspective. Take this play for instance.

open korver

Korver couldn't be more open, and he still didn't make the shot. It would be easy to dismiss the defensive effort of the Celtics using these plays as evidence, but I wouldn't. The Hawks have a truly great offense, so some open shots are inevitable. Even the best defenses in the NBA give up shots like these. Limiting those shots is important, and that's something that doesn't always show up in a box score. For players like Kyle Korver, that can make the difference between a quiet outing or an explosion of points. In 36 minutes of play he was held to just five shots, which is well below his average for the season. Boston's defense deserves credit for this great team effort against Kyle Korver and the Hawks.

All stats are from unless otherwise noted. All images captured from NBA League Pass.

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