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Love and Korver aren't just watching LeBron

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LeBron continues to have his grip on the East (2:08)

LeBron James' clutch fadeaway jumpers and soul-crushing buzzer-beaters continue his domination of the Eastern Conference finals. (2:08)

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:

Korver shoved Valanciunas so far as to force Toronto into switching. Korver got out of the way, and let Love feast.

"We really wanted to get Kevin going in the post," Korver says.

Two possessions later, Kyle Lowry tried a different technique to eliminate the backdoor cut. He positioned himself between Korver and the basket, and prepared to chase him:

Korver understood Lowry would be girding for a race around Love's pick. He faked that way, baited Lowry into overreacting, and then knifed into the very same backdoor cut Lowry was hellbent on taking away:

"We just do these things on the fly," Korver says. "It's just making reads. Everything works better if it's just you making reads."

Korver would be threatening running off screens from Bismack Biyombo. Using a screener who can shoot 3s and post up is unfair. Trap Korver, and Love fades to the corner for a quick-trigger triple. Switch, and Love bulldozes a little guy.

"You can't put a 5 on Love," McMillan says. "You just can't."

Sometimes, Love will rush down and screen for Korver in the corner instead of waiting for him. If Love makes contact, he might plow into the paint and drag Korver's defender with him -- engineering the same switch:

Korver and Love watch film together, hoping to discover new strains of this virus. "He has made me a better pro, in terms of watching film and really breaking it down," Love says of Korver.

A partnership with Love has given Korver a way to remain engaged. A lot of spot-up shooters who play with LeBron stand still, waiting for LeBron to break the defense and kick the ball out. Korver cannot stand still. He's hyperactive, impatient, curious as to what kind of space he can unlock for others just by moving around. He found two muses in Atlanta in Mike Budenholzer and Quin Snyder, a Hawks assistant in 2013-14, but even Budenholzer sometimes wanted Korver to chill in the corner.

There are times when Korver just kind of runs and hits people, like a human bumper car. Without willing partners, it doesn't really accomplish much. (Keep an eye on him on the left side:)

"I still hear Bud in my head saying, 'Quit moving so much!'" Korver says, laughing. But the Cavs have concluded they are more unpredictable with Korver in motion.

"This team wants me to kind of run around," Korver says. "So I have to quiet Bud's voice down."

It also energizes Love, and conjures post-ups for him. It's hard to remember now, but Love was an active and cagey cutter in Minnesota.

When Love feels like a participant, and not a bystander, he tends to play with more spirit on both ends. "We can't just stand and watch LeBron," Korver says. "That's a trap we all fall into. It's fine to do that sometimes. But we have to stay involved."

For the season, the Cavs have scored almost 1.1 points per possession when a Love screen for Korver leads directly to a shot, and almost 1.3 points per possession -- a gigantic number near the top of the overall leaderboard -- when Korver screens for Love, per Second Spectrum tracking data.

Love, Korver and Tyronn Lue keep exploring new wrinkles. How about a back screen from Korver in the middle of the floor as LeBron handles the ball up top?

The Raptors had no clue that was coming. Even if they did, what are you supposed to do? If Korver's man -- Lowry again -- lingers in the paint until Valanciunas recovers onto Love, Korver zips up into an easy triple. Sending help from the corners leaves either Smith or George Hill free. Switch, and Love goes into bully mode while Korver dares Valanciunas to keep up with him.

Stay home, and Love jets in for a layup. "We are just out there manipulating the game," Love says. "Kyle has been gold for us."

Another favorite: Love and Smith set a monster double pick for Korver, only Korver slithers in between the two screens and beelines for the rim. Hell, he might do that, and then U-turn back around Love toward the corner:

Good luck tracking that.

There haven't been many strictly off-ball two-man games this sophisticated involving a big and a wing. McMillan compares it to John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek screening for each other while Karl Malone held the ball in the post. But that involved two guards bobbing and weaving. Golden State's off-ball action between players of all sizes comes to mind.

Korver has imported a lot of the quirks he developed with Paul Millsap and Al Horford in Atlanta, though Love is a more willing 3-point shooter than those guys, with a quicker release. Love brought in an old Minnesota favorite. Does this look familiar?

It should.

"I asked Kevin how he'd feel if I threw him the ball and did that," Korver recalls, "and he was like, 'I did that with Kevin Martin all the time!'"

If they face Boston in the Eastern Conference finals, Love and Korver will have to add even more deception. The Celtics are ultra-switchable with Horford at center, and any three of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum or Marcus Morris on the floor. Smart has spent much of this round hounding JJ Redick, and probably would draw a big chunk of the Korver assignment. He is sturdy enough to withstand at least some of Love's post-ups.

If the Sixers somehow rally, they will have to decide whether Joel Embiid can handle this -- or if they need to stash him someplace else as McMillan did with Turner. (They have already shifted him off of Horford in their current series when possible.)

Either way, Korver and Love are brainstorming. They have discussed changing speeds more -- strolling toward each other, and then accelerating into top gear at the last second.

"I think we can get a lot better," Korver says. "There's the game, and then there's the game Kevin and I play within the game."