NBA Finals Failure Fueling Kyle Korver’s First Full Season in Cleveland
CLEVELAND — Every NBA Finals series has its defining moment. Robert Horry has one. Derek Fisher does, too. LeBron James and Kyrie Irvingeach etched their own within 90 seconds of one another. And in June 2017, that moment belonged to Golden State’s Kevin Durant.
You’ve seen the video. Durant—an unfair combination of length, quickness and skill—casually dribbling down the court before rising up from the left wing, ultimately vindicating an entire free-agency decision with one three-point shot over the outstretched arm of a four-time MVP. The scowl. The nod. The “That’s What’s Up” skip back to the other side of the floor.
While the entire NBA world knows what happened, few recall what set up Durant’s heroics.
It’s Game 3. Cleveland. The Cavaliers are staring down the barrel of a 3-0 deficit at the hands of the Golden State Warriors but have a two-point lead at home with barely a minute remaining. James was engulfed in his normal heroics, sitting on 39 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists when head coach Ty Lue calls a full timeout. With the ball in their hand, and two to three points being the goal, Lue subs Kevin Love in for Tristan Thompson with Kyle Korver replacing Iman Shumpert.
As play unfolds, James draws Warriors do-it-all center Draymond Green at the top of the three-point arc. He dances, briefly, before driving with his left hand into the key, where he fires a picture-perfect pass to Korver. With Love setting a screen, stopping anyone from getting anywhere near the Cavaliers shooting guard, Korver raises and fires a shot he has taken, and made, countless times in his career, only to have the ball carom off the front side of the rim. The ball lands in the hands of Durant. He dribbles to the other end of the floor and buries what would eventually become his “f–k you” shot.
It was the right play. James was facing a triple-team, one of whom was one of the best defenders in the game, while one of the best shooters in the history of the NBA was alone in the corner. The Cavaliers did not score again, and the Warriors won, 118-113.
Korver missed three three-point tries in the game’s final quarter, but none were bigger than the one that could have sealed the victory. Instead, it was a seven-point swing. James took the brunt of the postgame grief as some questioned the decision to dish the ball from the key, passing up the opportunity to go over 40 points and send the Cavaliers home with a much-needed win, but Korver knew where the shrapnel should have landed.
“I had a great look in the corner,” Korver said with an are-you-kidding-me smirk, staring off into space following the game. “I still can’t believe it didn’t go down. I thought it was in. It’s a tough one.”
During the regular season, Korver shot 28-of-47 (59.6 percent) from the left corner, his most lethal spot on the floor, per NBA Savant. If that one, solitary attempt goes in, the Cavs go up five with 50 seconds remaining, get back on defense instead of facing the Warriors in transition, and Durant’s storybook moment evaporates into the summer air as a three-game hole becomes a one-game speed bump.
“The ball didn’t go in the basket for whatever reason,” Korver said. “It’s tough to explain right now. We all have plays we want back. I thought it was in. It left my hand, felt good.”
Korver would not sleep that night. He did everything he could to turn his mind off, from eating a late-night snack to taking a sleeping pill. He read a book. He stared at the television. Nothing worked.
“You don’t need more thoughts in your head,” Korver said of those following hours. “You do what you can to block it out.”
Trust the Process
To watch Korver prepare for a basketball game is an episode in artistry. Roughly 60 minutes before each game, Korver emerges from the locker room and heads toward the stanchion near the Cavaliers bench to select the ball that will start his routine. It’s at this point where he’ll be as close to the rim as he’ll get throughout his entire workout.
After a few shots to get down the ideal release and rotation, Korver hits the first spot on the floor at the top of the three-point line, where he receives passes from Cavs assistant coach Mike Garrity. He stays there until he hits 10 threes. Not only is it shocking if he misses, but it’s surprising if the ball even grazes the rim. Every shot releases the same way, his follow-through like the muscle memory of a surgeon.
As he continues shooting from different spots on the floor—pretending to run around screens, receiving high handoffs or popping out from the elbow—the entire sequence looks less like a ball soaring through a cylinder and more like a pebble being tossed into the ocean with the nylon net splashing upward with each shot.
“Every year it’s a little different,” Korver tells of his pregame ritual. “I find the shots I think I’m getting in the game. Those are the shots I try to focus on. Different offenses, different teams. It’s always changed throughout the years, but this is what me and Mike settled on this year.
“You just want to get your mechanics down. I try to think through everything. Every day you try to find your shot. You try to find the groove you want to be in. It takes a bunch of shots to get there, just waking everything up and finding that groove.”
Until his routine is complete, roughly 12 or 13 minutes of shooting capped off with a brief film study, Korver never stops moving. This movement continues throughout each evening. From the moment Korver comes off of the bench, he’s moving, either popping out to the corner, running around screens or streaming down the court to get back on defense, taking a charge midway through the fourth quarter of a game where the Cavs are up 22. A quick sampling of NBA.com player tracking data shows Korver, who will turn 37 in March, covering more ground than some starters while doing so at team-high speeds.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer had a front-row seat for Korver’s workmanship during his stint in Atlanta. From Bud’s standpoint, it’s no surprise that his former player is keeping it rolling despite his age.
“It’s a testament to his hard work and sticking to his process,” Budenholzer tells of Korver’s maintained excellence. “His offseason training. His in-season training. His attention to detail. You see Tom Brady doing it in football, and Kyle doing what he’s doing at 37. He’s a special human being, and it translates to what he’s been able to do at a high level at his age.”
A silent assassin, 91.3 percent of Korver’s field goals this season have seen him have the ball in his hands for less than two seconds prior to shooting. If this mark were to stick throughout the season, it would mark the second-highest percentage of such shots since the NBA began tracking this data five seasons ago, the highest since his All-Star campaign. This level of movement has led to the highest three-point rateof his career. Coupling this with his high-end efficiency, Korver, much like LeBron James, is having one of his best seasons 15 years into his career.
“There’s a relationship there, a friendship there,” said Budenholzer. “I have a ton of respect for him. He’s made me a better coach. When he has success and does well, assuming it’s not against us, I’m happy for him.”
The (Rocky) Road to Cleveland
In 2010, then-general manager Chris Grant tried to acquire Korver but was strapped for cash, and the team was shrouded in uncertainty with James testing free-agent waters. In 2013, Korver was once again on Grant’s radar, this time as a member of the Atlanta Hawks. He took less money in Atlanta and went on to be one of the most efficient marksmen for one of the league’s most selfless teams, making the Eastern Conference All-Star roster in 2014-15. Things changed dramatically, however, when James returned to Cleveland. The Hawks eventually lost forward Al Horford in free agency. The team began to flail in the league-average limbo that has thwarted the plans of countless other franchises.
After seasons of searching for a floor-spacing wing to slot next to James as the Heat did with Ray Allen—Shawn Marion in 2014, Richard Jefferson in 2015 and Mike Dunleavy in 2016—David Griffin struck while the iron was hot, sending Dunleavy, Mo Williams and a future first-round pick to Atlanta for what amounted to just five-and-a-half guaranteed months of the 6’7″ swingman’s services. This was a Cavaliers team forced to give early-season minutes to players like Jordan McRae and DeAndre Liggins now able to rely on a player who was still shooting north of 40 percent from three-point range.
“It adds another dynamic piece to our team,” James said following the trade. “Helluva sharpshooter and just a great guy. Great professional, as you’ve seen over his career, a guy that’s played at a high level for a long time, has championship aspirations. And he has another rocket launcher.”
What many didn’t see was the disruption that took place off of the court. When Korver went from Utah to Chicago, he was single, free to go whichever way the winds blew. When Chicago traded him to Atlanta, it was in the offseason, allowing him to settle into his new city and have a full year to get accustomed to his role with his new team. This past January, however, things were much different.
“I have a one-, three- and five-year-old,” Korver told. “Moving in the winter, the baby was two months at the time. That’s a tough adjustment. It’s the behind-the-scenes things that most people don’t always think too much about that we think a lot about. It took a little while. I had a good stretch until I had this foot thing come up that kind of set me back. I felt a little bit, in terms of how I was able to move. I don’t think I quite ever went back into the groove.”
The season ended in disappointing fashion. There was Game 3. There were also Games 1, 2 and 5 that resulted in the Cavs losing in five games to the Warriors. Cleveland returned the title of “reigning champion” to the Bay Area and had a summer that made the rest of the NBA seem invisible. Korver’s future with the team was as uncertain as its own future, as Griffin would not be retained by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who was also wrestling with a league-leading luxury tax bill. Behind the scenes, the Cavs were also dealing with the trade demands of All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving.
Nevertheless, the two sides eventually agreed to a three-year extension that sent the Cavs’ luxury tax north of $40 million. It would give Korver a full season with his new team, providing a longer runway to exact revenge on the one shot that failed him.
“I was told, even when the trade happened, ‘We’d like for you to be around for a while,'” Korver told of his offseason. “Anytime you walk into free agency, ask any player: You only get to be a free agent so many times; you have to see what’s there and work it through with your family.”
When reminded that there are not many 37-year-olds fielding multiyear offers in today’s NBA, Korver smiles.
“Well, yeah,” he says. “I was hopeful this was going to work out. The better my teammates are, the better I am. I think for me, to be able to come back here and play with ‘Bron, and play with these guys, it’s an incredible opportunity. When it’s all said and done, to say that you played with this group, it’s just something you want to take advantage of.”
“It’s the Next Shot.”
Ty Lue refers to Korver as “the ultimate competitor” whose movement “creates confusion.” Kyrie Irving once referred to him as the “best shooter in the world.” And LeBron James, who recently blessed him with the nickname “Mr. Fourth Korver,” calls his running mate one hell of a security blanket.
Late in the fourth quarter of their game against the 76ers in early December, James had decided to make up for a suspect first half by taking over. To close out the game, James spearheaded a 22-12 run during which he scored or assisted on all 22 of those points.
It would be one play in particular, however, that blew things open as James—reminiscent of the play in Game 3 of the 2017 NBA Finals—danced around at the top of the three-point line, this time driving to his right. As the Sixers defense converged, there was Korver, alone in the corner. James delivered a crisp bounce pass through traffic, threading four Philadelphia defenders into the waiting hands of the shooting guard. Korver pump-faked, sending Philadelphia’s Amir Johnson sailing into the first row, rose and drained a three-pointer that put the Cavaliers up by one. They never relinquished the lead.
“A guy who shoots extremely well like he does, for us to have Kyle, it’s a great safety net,” James told. “Anytime [an opponent] tries to take a body off of him or lose him…it’s big-time.”
Korver currently boasts the team’s highest net rating (13.2), and the Cavaliers are 18.2 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents when Korver is on the floor versus off of it. This net on-off rating not only blows away the rest of the Cavaliers, but it dwarfs that of some of the best players in the NBA. Houston’s James Harden, for added perspective, makes the Rockets just 2.1 points better per 100 possessions.
Of all the Cavaliers to benefit from the fruits of Korver’s labor, it’s fellow shooting guard Dwyane Wade who has shared a ton of floor time thanks to Lue’s hockey-style rotations. Of the five-man units ranked by NBA.com’s Player Impact Estimate, four of Cleveland’s top five combinations feature the duo of Korver and Wade, with only three of them featuring James.
“He makes our team special with what he’s able to do and the way he’s able to move off the ball,” said. “He never stops moving, and even when he’s not making shots, he’s still a threat with the defense. They always got to have an eye on him, so it allows other guys to be able to have moments where they can sneak-attack or have a little bit more space on the floor. I know LeBron is the guy and gets the headlines, but to me, Kyle is as important to our success, for sure.”
Korver has more than 2,100 three-pointers to his name. He’s currently fifth all-time in the NBA and could pass Paul Pierce for No. 4 by the turn of the calendar. If he were to retire tomorrow, he’d be sixth all-time in three-point efficiency, just ahead of two-time MVP Steve Nash.
So what’s the secret? You know, in addition to the meticulous preparation on and off of the court, 15 years of experience, three trades, three free-agent contracts and the added motivation of failure on the NBA’s biggest stage?
“It’s the next shot,” Korver said, still on the floor, following the win over Philly. “I get mad about the last one sometimes, but you have to keep on shooting, keep on believing in what you do. There are a lot more games to come.”
The Best Is Yet to Come
Korver doesn’t really want to talk about it. He doesn’t want to go back there, to mid-June, to the point where his would-be dagger clanged off the front of the rim. Who can blame him? He’s an elder statesman in this league. He was drafted in the same class as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. He played with Allen Iverson. He played alongside Derrick Rose during his MVP campaign. And now, he’s watched all of these moments enter NBA lore. He arrived in Cleveland in a roundabout way and is playing alongside those same two players who heard their names called more than 40 picks ahead of him in 2003, contending for the very championship that evaded him and James several months earlier and that beckoned Wade to reunite with his old friend for one last ride.
But how can one of the best shooters in the history of the game have such an uncharacteristic series? Did the Warriors take him out of his comfort zone? Was it the size and magnitude of the NBA Finals stage? Or was it simply a really, really bad time to have a few off nights?
He’s seated at the Cavs practice facility, right ankle perched upon his left knee having just completed a morning shootaround, with a reporter looking for answers as to why—why were things different?
“It’s just one of those weird things where you don’t ever want to make any kind of excuse,” Korver tells. “The having the week, week-and-a-half between series, for someone like me, was difficult. We didn’t do a lot of live action in practice. I felt like in Games 1 and 2 of every series, I didn’t shoot the ball well. I felt like I wasn’t in the rhythm that I try to stay in. I look at Games 1 and 2 versus the rest of the games in general and there was a dramatic difference in how I shot the ball…I didn’t shoot it the way I had hoped.”
Korver catches himself starting to go down the rabbit hole and attempts to change course.
“I really don’t like dwelling on it much,” he continues. “I don’t like digging into it and create something that doesn’t have to be there in my head.
“I think going back, everyone is referring to that shot. It didn’t feel…it felt good when it left my hand. We were up when I shot it. Who knows? They come down and hit a three and change the game. It’s one of those things that makes sports awesome. You never know what’s going to happen next. Definitely…I don’t want to make a big deal in my head, though. I wish that shot would’ve gone down for sure.”
While grandiose proclamations like “championship or bust” would make for better headlines, Korver’s personal goals are simple. He wants to be efficient. He wants to keep his body feeling good—he’s almost 37 years old, after all. He’d rather not play through aches and pains. He’s always looking to improve his lifestyle—his diet, his sleep patterns, his spirit—and, despite all of the statistics that place him atop so many league lists, he wants to become a better shooter. But at the very core, he wants to play the game of basketball with joy.
“If you’re healthy in all those ways and try to have fun while you do it, you’re usually going to play well,” he says.
But as the proverb states, to know where you’re going, you have to know where you have been. To appreciate the good, you have to remember the bad. Nostalgia isn’t exactly what we remember, but how we remember it all taking place. Korver speaks of his teammates coming to him after Game 3, reassuring him that it was the right play. Given the opportunity to bury a late-game three-pointer against one of the best teams the NBA has ever seen, he says they would do it again. He says he wants to shoot it again.
“People always ask me, ‘What’s your highest moment?’ and I never know how to answer that question,” Korver says. “I hope the best is yet to come. I never like to live in the past. I never say, ‘Those were the glory days.’ Some people think about that with high school. Some think about it with college, or a certain moment. I think, the way I want to live, is the best is yet to come.
“I love the process of it all. When I sit back and look at my career, you can’t appreciate the good moments without having to go through the hard moments. It’s a different way of looking through hard times, but you have to have those. The people who have done the greatest things in life usually have the hardest stories of how they got there. I think you just have to understand it’s all part of the journey and a part of the process, and you never know what’s going to happen next.”
To borrow a phrase, it’s one of those things that makes sports awesome.
*All stats are current through Sunday, Dec. 17.