Tyronn Lue knows the numbers.
That’s why the Cavaliers coach has made defending Hawks guard Kyle Korver a priority.
“When we take him out of the game, they have a tough time scoring,” Lue said Monday. “We know in the last series (against the Celtics), they were a plus-78 when he was on the floor and a minus-24 when he was off the floor. He’s a big part of what they do and we have to lock into him and try to take him out of the series.”
Which is, in part, why Round 1 went to the Cavaliers.
Korver had just one shot, a missed 3-pointer, in the Hawks’ 104-93 loss to the Cavaliers in Monday’s opening game of the Eastern Conference semifinals. He finished with three points, all free throws after being fouled on a long-range attempt, and five rebounds in 37 minutes. He was a minus-6.
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The series continues Wednesday with Game 2 in Cleveland and Korver expects the same treatment with a heavy guard from J.R. Smith and others. It will be no different than the strategy employed by the Cavaliers in last season’s conference finals and this regular season. Last May, Korver scored nine points in Game 1 and 12 points in Game 2 before leaving with a season-ending ankle injury. He had 14,14 and three points in the regular-season meetings.
“They’ve done it for a couple years,” Korver said Tuesday after the Hawks’ practice at Cleveland State. “They are a very smart team. They are really good at it. This is why they are one of the best in the NBA, if not the best. They know what they are doing. They are all on a string. It’s a definite challenge.”
There are things that can be done, within the flow of the offense, to free Korver, according to coach Mike Budenholzer. Harder screens can be set. Cuts can be faster. The offensive pace can be better. Defense can lead to transition baskets.
“With Kyle, I have to do a better job of making sure I set better screens for him and give him more looks,” Al Horford said. “There is a high emphasis on that end. As a group, we have to keep playing our game and find ways to get Kyle more involved.”
The challenge is to get Korver involved without sacrificing the team’s offense. If the Cavaliers want to put that much emphasis on one player, that should present scoring opportunities from others, perhaps most notably Paul Millsap and Horford.
Both got off to slow starts Monday. Millsap finished with a double-double of 17 points and 13 rebounds. Horford had just 10 points and six rebounds. If the Hawks are going to win — and snap a streak of nine straight postseason and eight consecutive overall losses the Cavaliers — the big men have to have a greater impact.
“We tend to just take what’s available and let the offense go to the other guys,” Budenholzer said. “If you are playing somewhat of a four-on-four game, then the looks and the opportunities for everybody else should be high-quality. We’d like to get Kyle some shots and get him going but historically the way we play, (we) just let it flow to other guys.”
Dennis Schroder was one player who took advantage of the Cavaliers’ defensive commitment to Korver. The reserve point guard finished with a game-high 27 points, including five 3-pointers.
“He is still a big part of our offense when he is just sitting in the corner,” Schroder said. “You play pick-and-roll and they don’t shift off of him, the big or the point guard can attack. Jeff and me, we have to do a better job of finding him in transition and the set plays.”
Korver said he took a sleeping pill Monday night so he wouldn’t be up all night with his mind racing about how Game 1 could have been different. The Hawks battled back from an 18-point deficit, took a lead with 4:27 remaining and then failed down the stretch as the Cavaliers finished with a 17-5 run.
For the Hawks, the question is whether they can win the series without the scoring of Korver.
“It’s a challenge,” Korver said. “I definitely feel they were aware of where I was any time I was about to come off free. They would switch out. I watched the film, (I’ll) look for some more opportunities and try to be more aggressive.”