It was the rotation decision heard 'round the world (or at least The Land): Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue didn't play Kyle Korver in the first quarter of his team's 96-83 Game 5 loss in the Eastern Conference finals.
Korver's early absence and Lue's explanation for it became one of the most dissected aspects of the Cavs' loss, with column space, air time and social media posts devoted to picking apart the decision with as much fervor as LeBron James' apparent fatigue or the Cavs starting backcourt's disappearing act.
On its face, the outrage makes sense: How is Cleveland's third-leading scorer in the postseason having his role dictated by the eighth or ninth man in Stevens' rotation? How does one of the Cavs' Game 4 heroes -- with 14 points, three blocks and that memorable dive on the floor for a loose ball -- become an afterthought in Game 5 because a Celtics role player -- a rookie -- didn't get in the game?
If Lue's explanation was lacking after Game 5 on Wednesday, he offered little else in a conference call with reporters Thursday.
Reporter: "Is there anything you wish you had done differently last night, especially in terms of the rotations?"
Since Lue wouldn't reveal his thought process, let's attempt to figure it out.
Korver started Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, and it did not go well, either for him individually or for the Cavs as a team. He shot 2-for-6 from the field (1-for-5 from 3) and scored 5 points. On the other end of the court, he started off matching up with Jaylen Brown, an elite athlete 16 years his junior. Brown hunted Korver when the Celtics were on offense, targeting a bad matchup for the Cavs that exemplified how Boston was the more physical team in the series opener.
Additionally, while Korver is a former All-Star and 15-year veteran, even his confidence on offense can be thrown off by repeatedly getting exposed on the defensive end. There's both a mental and physical fatigue that comes with that.
Lue, recognizing this, made his first major adjustment of the series for Game 2 by bringing Korver off the bench and starting Tristan Thompson. It put more toughness on the court from the start and gave Cleveland a better defensive matchup on Al Horford, as Thompson has defended him as well as anyone in the league the past several years.
In Game 2, Korver made his first appearance with 2:05 remaining in the first quarter -- the same time Ojeleye checked in to the game. While the 235-pound Ojeleye has a bigger body than Korver, he isn't the explosive athlete that Brown is. Nor is he as big a part of Boston's offense -- he's averaging just 1.9 points on 30.3 percent shooting (27.3 percent from 3) during the playoffs.
Korver got something going offensively in Game 2, scoring 11 points on 4-for-8 shooting. He kept it up in Game 3, scoring 14 points on 5-for-5 shooting in a 30-point romp.
Then his heroic Game 4. That dive for the loose ball did help stave off a run by the Celtics late in the third quarter, but Korver scored all 14 of his points in the first half, finding his footing with the Ojeleye matchup.
In the second half of Game 4, Korver was 0-for-3 from the field in 13 minutes. Meanwhile, Brown got going, scoring 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting as the Celtics cut a 15-point halftime deficit down to seven, before eventually losing by nine. Even though Korver had three blocks on Brown in the first half, Boston's second-year wing kept coming at him and had success.
By Game 5, Korver had become so used to the Ojeleye matchup that he didn't even have to check with Lue to find out when he was going in: As soon as Ojeleye got off the bench to head to the scorer's table, Korver did the same.
But as the first quarter of Game 5 played out, that never happened. Was it a stroke of genius by Stevens to keep Korver off the floor? Or was it the Celtics coach riding a hot lineup? By the two-minute mark of the first quarter Wednesday, Boston was up 24-15.
Could Lue have brought Korver in at that point to stick to his routine of coming in around the two-minute mark of the first quarter, regardless of Ojeleye being in there? Sure. But then Korver is in the position he was in during Game 1, having to guard a live body -- Boston's lineup was Brown, Horford, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris at that point -- while trying to get his own shot going.
NBA playoff series are all about matchups. That's the reason why when Lue took Thompson out in the first quarter in Game 5 and shifted Love to center, Stevens scrambled to get Aron Baynes out of the game as fast as he could.
Lue didn't like the idea of Korver guarding any of the Celtics who were rolling in the first quarter, so he didn't send Korver in. With the quarter break serving as a natural halt in momentum, Lue went with Korver to start the second quarter.
For the game, Korver played 19 minutes and took six shots, making two of them, to finish with seven points. Coming into the game, Korver had been averaging 6.5 shots in 22.5 minutes per game in this series.
Lue's decision likely only cost Korver two to three minutes of playing time at most. He would have played more in the fourth quarter if it was a close game, but Lue emptied his bench with three minutes to go because the outcome was already decided.
So the question is: Was it an egregious mistake by Lue? That's hard to say after reasoning it out. Yes, the Cavs struggled to score in Game 5, but would Korver have been the magical elixir? Was Lue supposed to give up on JR Smith because he shot 1-for-6 from the field (0-for-4 from 3) in lieu of Korver, even though Smith is five years younger and far more physically equipped to handle Boston's young wings?
It stinks to lose, and fans can want their pound of flesh to take out their frustration, but to suggest that the way Lue handled Korver in Game 5 was a gross miscalculation on his part is missing the whole picture.