If you’re a Boston Celtics fan, the only Cleveland Cavalier who’s scared you in the Eastern Conference finals, other than All-Stars LeBron James and Kevin Love, is Kyle Korver, so it came as a relief to the TD Garden crowd when the 37-year-old sniper never got off the bench in the first quarter of Game 5.
After averaging 13 points on 65 percent shooting (57 percent from 3-point range) in Games 2-4 of the series, Korver played just 19 minutes in Wednesday’s 96-83 loss, half of which came when his Cavs trailed by as many as 21 points in the fourth quarter. Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue’s explanation?
Celtics coach Brad Stevens “has been putting [Semi] Ojeleye in, so that’s been kind of Kyle’s matchup when he comes in the game. He didn’t play him tonight, so it kind of threw us for a loop. But we got Bron out with two-and-a-half minutes, and at the start of the fourth he wasn’t ready to go. The same thing happened I think Game 1 or 2; I can’t remember.”
Let’s take Lue at his word for a moment: He didn’t play his third-best player this series in a pivotal Game 5 because the Celtics didn’t play their eighth-best player, which is ludicrous. That’s a borderline fireable offense. Maybe not even borderline. There has to be some other explanation, right? RIGHT?!?!
Is Kyle Korver healthy?
Lue alluded to an elbow injury at Cleveland’s shootaround earlier in the day, and Korver could be seen favoring his elbow during pregame and halftime warmups throughout the series, but he still played the 19 minutes, making two of his five 3-point attempts to finish with seven points.
Afterwards, Korver made no mention of an elbow issue, so it couldn’t have bothered him too much.
Maybe Tyronn Lue was worried about Korver’s defense?
Korver was a net negative in each of the first two games in Boston, both losses, and he struggled defensively opposite Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum in Cleveland’s Game 4 victory, so there was certainly reason for concern about him being exploited by more athletic wings on that end of the floor.
Then again, JR Smith was the primary defender against Tatum on Wednesday night, and the rookie was Boston’s most punishing offensive force, scoring 24 points on 15 shots and adding four assists. Tatum seemed to get where he wanted at will, and with Smith struggling from the field, scoring just two points on 1-for-6 shooting (0-for-4 from distance), you would think Korver was at least worth a shot, especially given the veteran’s defensive contributions opposite Jaylen Brown in the Game 3 blowout.
Does the Ojeleye excuse even make sense?
Well, we know it doesn’t, but even if we follow Lue’s logic about not playing Korver unless he can work opposite Ojeleye, was this something the Cavs coach was even doing earlier in the series? Ojeleye played nine minutes apiece in Games 2 and 4, sandwiched around extended garbage time in Game 3.
In Game 1, Korver exited as Ojeleye entered the game in the first and third quarters. In Game 2, both players checked in at the end of the first quarter and played well into the second. In Game 3, Ojeleye entered two minutes into the second quarter, when Korver had already been on the court for almost four minutes. In Game 4, Ojeleye exited the game when Korver entered at the end of the first quarter.
All in all, Ojeleye defended Korver for five possessions, and he did not get a shot off. On the other end, Lue hid Korver on Ojeleye for 44 possessions, and he predictably did not attempt a shot. This would suggest that Lue viewed Korver as such a defensive liability that he could not afford to play him opposite anyone other than Ojeleye, all as Cleveland’s offense went dry for considerable spells and Lue turned to Jordan Clarkson for 15 minutes. Long story short, none of this makes any sense.
Maybe Lue is protecting Korver
I get it. Korver is 37 years old, and he may not have the stamina to keep up with the 20- and 21-year-old Tatum and Brown. It would be less than cool for Lue to come out and cite that as his excuse.
What he absolutely should not do is instead suggest the only reason he didn’t play Korver when his offense was unraveling was because Stevens didn’t remind him by putting in Ojeleye, when in fact that mindless prompt had only come once in their previous four meetings anyway. Because that makes him sound like he was wildly unprepared to make in-game adjustments based on the game’s feel.
Even if he were only covering for Korver with those confusing comments, that still doesn’t excuse not playing a guy who can quickly carve into a double-digit lead when paired with LeBron and Love. Instead, here’s the lineup he rolled out to start the fourth quarter: Clarkson, Korver, Smith, Jeff Green and Larry Nance Jr. A 16-point lead ballooned to 21, and the game was over. Good night. Too-da-Lue.
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