To watch the Atlanta Hawks this year was, mostly, to watch Kyle Korver sprint around multiple screens, looping and darting and dashing in search of the inch or so of space he needs to let it fly from deep. At any given moment, it seems reasonable to expect him to stop, or at least show signs of slowing down. His defender probably expects, and hopes for this, too. Kyle Korver does not stop.
Now, watch Korver as he shoots. Watch him curl off a screen, receive the ball and in the same motion, rise and shoot with unconscious, flawless form. Watch him do the exact same thing the next possession. Even if Korver is falling away, with two defenders in his face, he almost always manages to square his shoulders to the basket. The circumstances change, but the shot does not.
Great players make excruciating things look easy. Dirk Nowitzki hits his one-legged, turnaround fadeaway with extreme nonchalance, while Steph Curry's threes are produced from liquid movements as casual as a handshake or a smile. What makes Kyle Korver—who does not nearly have the physical genius of Dirk Nowitzki or Steph Curry, but is inarguably still great at his craft—so fascinating is that nothing looks easy to him.
Every shot, every screen, every defensive rotation looks herculean, as if it's the last breath of effort he can produce before collapsing near-lifeless onto the court. And then he just does it again and again and again.
This season, the signature of the Atlanta Hawks' offense was crisp, flowing ball movement, in the proverbial "passing up a good shot for a great one" given form. Korver was as essential to that constant flow as any member of the team, with his blistering shooting opening up everything else for his teammates. Even on nights when Korver's shot wasn't falling, the defense had to pay so much attention to him that the threat of his shot had a similar impact. Korver does the hard stuff, and his teammates take care of the rest.
To watch Korver is to watch a perfect loop, an unchanging thing without beginning or end. Or it was, anyway. In the opening round of the playoffs, the Brooklyn Nets have been able to interrupt it as no team had previously. Korver is shooting 17-of-48 from behind the arc this series, and that respectable 35 percent marks a devastating drop from his near-historic 49.2 percent clip from the regular season. What once merely looked difficult for Korver now actually is. As a result, the Hawks—the Eastern Conference's winningest team, matched up against a Nets team that backed zombified into the playoffs—are suddenly in a very competitive series.
The Nets are being more physical with Korver, and busting his screens so he can't get any separation. This is one of the main reasons why, after producing the sixth-best offense in the regular season—a robust 106.2 points per 100 possessions—the Hawks now have just the tenth best offense, out of 16 teams, in the postseason with a 101.6 offensive rating.
And yet, judging by Korver's face alone, it's impossible to tell that he's struggling. Korver rarely betrays his feelings. On very few occasions, he is prone to outbursts of joy or frustration. More often than not, though, his face is fixed in a look bereft of emotions.
It's not a cool look, exactly. There's no easy composure or adamantium confidence. His face is painted with determination and the middle-distance look of extreme focus. It's the look of someone dedicated to the process. Every shooter is prone to slumps, be it a product of the defense or himself. He can't control whether the ball swishes through the net or bounces harmlessly off the rim, not really. But he can control the process: making the right cut, getting open, squaring his shoulders, holding his follow-through. Korver lives in the belief that doing it the right way—the same way as always—will produce the desired result.
Korver busted out of his slump slightly on Wednesday night, shooting 5-of-12 from beyond the arc. During one of the Hawks' first possessions, Jeff Teague probed through the Nets' defense, finding an open Korver on the left wing. Thaddeus Young closed out, but not in time. On another possession, DeMarre Carroll streaked down the floor in transition, with Korver slightly trailing to his right. Upon reaching the three point arc, Carroll shoveled the ball to Korver, who rose immediately. One of these shots fell softly through nylon. The other clanged off iron. To look at Korver's face, you'd never know which did which.