Lowe: Love and Korver’s masterful deception is just getting started

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As he walked the ball up after a Toronto Raptors basket with five minutes left in what would go on to be the most catastrophic Game 1 loss in the history of a franchise that specializes in Game 1 losses, LeBron James turned back to Kevin Love and muttered instructions out of enemy earshot: “Go get Kyle.”

Kyle Korver had almost reached his starting position in the left corner as James whispered to Love. He’s not sure if he even saw the conversation. When Korver does notice LeBron pausing to chat with Love, he can guess the subject matter: “Go get Kyle.”

“If I see Bron talking to Kevin, I know what’s coming,” Korver says. “Other times, I’m the last to know. It’s not like he can call out the play. You have to hide it.”

The play is this: Love jogging over as if to set a pick for LeBron, only to veer suddenly toward the corner and hammer Korver’s man with a pindown screen. It is the meanest version of a set that has spread into almost every playbook.

It also became the first building block in a unique partnership between Love and Korver that grows more complex with every game — an improvisational off-ball dance of circles, zig-zags, and screens set in every direction until the defense falls in on itself. LeBron lords over the action from the top of the arc, waiting to fire the ball to whoever pops open.

It has reinvigorated Love, and produced the kind of secondary, LeBron-adjacent offense the Cleveland Cavaliers lacked in limping past the Indiana Pacers in the first round.

Love and Korver are second and third, respectively, on the team in postseason scoring. Cleveland piled up 125 points per 100 possessions against Toronto in 99 minutes with LeBron, Love and Korver on the floor, and outscored the Raptors by 41 points over that time, per NBA.com. Korver and Love are 50-of-117 combined from deep — 43 percent — in the playoffs.

“Those three together are just really, really good,” says Nate McMillan, the Pacers coach who dealt with them for seven games in the first round. “There really isn’t anything you can plan for. They just kind of play random basketball.”

McMillan still tried. He rejiggered his entire defensive scheme to account for the Korver-Love ballet. He had his center, Myles Turner, defend JR Smith so that Indiana’s quickest big man — Thaddeus Young — could chase Love. McMillan knew he was dropping Turner into unfamiliar waters.

“We decided we’d rather have Myles defend JR than have any kind of mismatch against the Love-Korver actions,” McMillan says.

Dwane Casey, the Raptors coach, stuck with Jonas Valanciunas — a traditional center — on Love until Game 4 of Cleveland’s sweep. He paid the price.

Korver and Love would smile hearing McMillan describe what they do as “random.” Aside from that set pindown play, they react in the moment to how the defense approaches them — and which two defenders are involved. It mostly starts with Korver positioning himself to run around a Love screen. That is dangerous enough. Staying attached to Korver at all costs is on the first page of any opponent scouting report.

Some defenders plant themselves between Korver and Love, barricading Korver’s path to the pick — a technique coaches call “top-blocking.” A variant: Korver’s defender might glue himself onto Korver’s outside hip, closer to the sideline, taking an angle that would make it easier to maneuver around Love’s screen.

When Korver feels a defender doing that — almost climbing onto his back — he’ll slice backdoor. If the cut gets Korver open, Love’s defender will often sag back to snuff the direct pass from LeBron to Korver. That risks leaving Love open for a 3-pointer.

Against Toronto, Korver used the threat of his backdoor cut to prey on poor Valanciunas — and to get Love going. He knew Valanciunas would drift back toward the rim, and instead of zipping by the big fella, Korver just smashed him with a pick:

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