“I know what it’s like to lose. To feel so desperately that you’re right, yet to fail nonetheless. But I ask to what end? Dread it. Run from it. Destiny still arrives.” - Thanos, Avengers: Infinity War
The greatest weapon in all of sports, especially basketball, is the human psyche. Demoralization is a more effective tool of certain victory than the flashy two points of a dunk or a spectacular array of dribble moves leading to a pull-up 3. While those plays incite a decrease in morale in the opposition, no singular play is objectively more potent than the dread that it creates. After all, 2 or 3 points are just that: 2 or 3 points. Demoralization is a lot deadlier.
As the Boston Celtics get set to tip off against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, I contend that the greatest entity that the Celtics should fear is not LeBron James himself. Sure, 40-point triple-doubles are relatively disheartening, but that occurs bit-by-bit and point-by-point. Even a LeBron James monster dunk isn’t enough to totally eradicate all semblance of hope from the opposing team.
Now, a Kyle Korver off-balance fadeaway 3-pointer? Sheesh. I can feel hope sapping from my bones just thinking about it. There’s nothing quite as demoralizing as a back-breaking 3-pointer after a Kevin Love-Korver off-ball pin-down, especially at a crucial point in the game.
Imagine this: the Celtics have cut a 20-point Cavaliers lead down to just 10 points in the 3rd quarter with about 2 minutes left in the frame. Marcus Morris goes to the only move he knows: a between-the-legs dribble pull-up jumper that clanks off the back rim. James grabs the rebound and pushes the ball. Korver’s been cherry-picking in the short corner for 18 minutes now, catches the ball, shoots fading to the left with momentum and hits a momentum crushing 3-pointer. 13-point deficit instantly feels like it’s a 23-point deficit.
Korver silently mutters, “dread it. Run from it. Destiny still arrives” as he walks back on defense. Or a light jog. Whatever. (Note: the sad part about that clip is hearing Brad Stevens yell, “good. Stay attached! Stay attached!” but then seeing the inevitability of an open look occur all the same)
This is clearly an over exaggeration of a potential scenario, but the sense of it is still the same. LeBron James is going to do LeBron James things, and the Celtics will be hard-pressed to stop him. That’s fine. As the Cavs-Pacers series showed us, when only LeBron James is going off and everyone else on the roster is, well, bad, then the Cavaliers are very beatable.
The only problem is that now, guys like Kevin Love, J.R. Smith and Korver are healthy and awake. It’ll be difficult for Boston to lull those guys back into hibernation. That, however, is the only way this Celtics team will win this series. They’re the Black Order to LeBron James’ Thanos. They can survive LeBron’s onslaught if, when he kicks the ball out to Korver or Smith, they have no room to breathe. The key to this series isn’t stopping, or even slowing James. The key is to make sure that he’s playing 1-on-5.
Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris will likely be LeBron James’ most frequent defenders. Those two will be able to spend a lot of time attempting to slow down James, and any possession that ends with either of them holding their own without the need of a double-team is a win for Boston. More likely than not, however, we will see possessions that hopelessly end like this:
That’s fine. If Cleveland’s starting five against the Toronto Raptors is any indication, that leaves George Hill, Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith to contend with. Assuming Boston starts with Terry Rozier-Brown-Jayson Tatum-Morris-Horford, that leaves Brown, Tatum and Rozier to deal with that trio. I expect Rozier on Hill, Tatum on Smith and Brown on Korver. Korver and Smith are interchangeable, but Brown has shown a better aptitude to guarding off-ball shooters, as shown by his defense on JJ Redick in the last round.
This won’t be the same as the last series, however. Philadelphia didn’t have a LeBron-level threat to fight with. As easy as it is to scheme up and say “ignore LeBron James, don’t double and stay home on shooters,” it’s a lot harder in practice, as a player, to keep that in mind. It’s an extremely enticing endeavor to dig in when James drives to the hoop, but that one step is all Korver needs to get enough space for a jump shot. That’s where you die if you let it happen. No, seriously, you die. Just ask the Toronto Raptors.
Off the bench, Marcus Smart is probably Boston’s best-equipped player to handle Kyle Korver. He’s Boston’s best perimeter defender by a mile, and he bulldozes through screens as if Mediterranean dates were on the other side. Since Al Horford will spend a lot of time guarding Kevin Love, Smart and Horford will often have to collaborate to stop Cleveland’s most fearsome attack (outside of LeBron James):
No, not Jeff Green. The Kevin Love-Kyle Korver off-ball screen. Zach Lowe spoke on how it broke the entire country of Canada, but Boston is well-equipped to shut it down. Here, it doesn’t matter because of the Jeff Green shot, but in principle, Horford and Smart can switch or fight through screens to take this action away. Their success in doing so will be crucial.
Shane Larkin’s absence makes it a lot harder, but Brad Stevens should try to match Smart’s minutes as closely as possible with Korver. The reason for this is because as dangerous as Korver is on one end, he can become just as valuable to Boston on the other end.
One way that Korver becomes valuable to Boston is when the Celtics run Marcus Smart in the post. Smart’s an above-average post player, and he’s abused Kyle Korver in the past. Here’s an example of Smart in the post against the similarly built Marco Belinelli:
An additional way Boston can attack Korver is in the pick-and-roll. As it stands, Kevin Love is going to spend a lot of minutes guarding Horford. To this end, Smart-Horford pick-and-rolls opens up a lot of opportunity for Boston. Here’s one example:
Here, the pick-and-roll leads to two obvious mismatches. Although Smart missed the 3-pointer, Horford was able to get the rebound easily with tiny Korver trying to box him out. Here’s another Smart-Horford pick-and-roll with Korver coverage:
Horford had numerous options with the much smaller Korver guarding him, so he created an open look for Daniel Theis (*tries not to cry about his absence) in the corner for the 3-pointer.
One more way the Celtics can attack Korver is to get action running with Tatum. Jayson Tatum has been Boston’s most consistent offensive option, and he’s basically abused smaller defenders all postseason. Getting Kyle Korver switched onto him is an easy way to manufacture points. Exhibit A:
If the Cavaliers aim to break Boston’s (so far) indomitable spirit, the Celtics have to challenge and dare them to keep Korver out there on defense while not getting burned when the Cavs are playing offense. This goes for Cleveland’s other shooters as well, but Korver is the most exposable player on the defensive end. It’ll be up to Brown and Smart and the collective to get him to become more of a liability than an asset for Cleveland.
(Infinity War spoiler alert)
If LeBron James is Thanos, then Kyle Korver is Ebony Maw. Ebony Maw’s spaceship was a great tool in intimidating Earth’s mightiest heroes (and Wong), but it also was his undoing in the end. The Celtics can’t afford Maw to complete his objective which is to lower Earth’s (Boston’s) defenses for the Infinity Stone (a trip to the NBA Finals) before Thanos arrives. If the Celtics hold steady and take Korver and the rest of the Black Order out of the game, victory is much more attainable.