In the last game of the regular season on April 14, 2010, with the Utah Jazz hosting the Phoenix Suns, one of the all-time great shooters, Steve Kerr, wanted to mess with the mind of another, Kyle Korver, to prevent history from being made.
"I saw him warming up, and I really wanted to go by and put the hex on him and say, 'There's no way you're breaking the record' or 'You better not chicken out and not shoot any threes tonight,'" said Kerr, now a TNT analyst, whose record for single-season three-point percentage was on the line.
"I was thinking about various things I could say, but I never got around to it. Something came up and I had to deal with it. I always kind of regret not saying something to him that day."
Korver didn’t hit a three that night, but because he only attempted one, he still broke Kerr’s record, .536 to .524 (three more misses would've kept it Kerr's record).
Since then, there haven’t been many trey-less performances for Korver. None, in fact, in a record 107 games after the Atlanta Hawks sharpshooter went 1-of-2 from deep against the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday night. The previous record was 89, held by former Boston Celtics guard Dana Barros; Korver surpassed that on Dec. 6.
The last game Korver didn't connect on a long ball was on Nov. 2, 2012, when he was 0-of-2 from beyond the arc.
"It's a remarkable display of consistency," Kerr said. "The three-point shot has become much more prominent in the last decade, but very rarely do you see a guy who can consistently, night in and night out, make such a high percentage, especially when everybody knows that's his goal coming into the game. So I'm amazed at what Kyle has done—just the level of consistency.
"And the Cal Ripken factor. I mean, he's there basically every game. There's got to be nights where physically he doesn't have it, so when he's out there making threes, it's pretty remarkable. I remember during my career where I played through pain—whatever it was—and you just didn't have any lift and you couldn't get any rhythm with your shot. And on a night like that, making a three-pointer seemed like a chore. He just makes it look easy."
Injury Turnaround and Transition to Atlanta
One big factor behind the continuation of the streak is that Korver—who dealt with an assortment of ankle, knee and wrist injuries earlier in his career—hasn't experienced pain in any of those areas this season. That's enabled him to play more and get more three-point looks. He missed four games this season with a slight rib injury but has started at shooting guard in the other 34 and is averaging a career-high 35 minutes.
Just two years ago in Chicago, Korver was only playing a tad more than 20 minutes per game off the bench.
"I feel better now at 32 than I did at 22," the 6'7", 212-pound Korver said. "This is the first year that I've felt all the way healthy for a long time."
That process of healing started in the summer of 2008, when Korver first went to P3 (The Peak Performance Project), an advanced sports performance conditioning center in Santa Barbara led by Harvard-trained physician Dr. Marcus Elliot. The Jazz had a relationship with the facility, which, according to Korver, has tested more than 1,000 pro athletes in different spots and "is very big on relearning how to use your body right and to reactivate certain muscles."
Over the course of just two weeks there that summer, Korver realized that specific movements he had been making on the court since he was a youth were putting extra stress on certain body parts. For one, during video analysis of his jump shooting he saw that his knees were almost knocking together. In fact, left knee pain he had been having in Utah made it easier for him to awkwardly first step into his shot with his right leg, which left-handers do.
"I was sick to my stomach when I was watching myself jump," he said. "Then I imagined myself all the times I've jumped growing up, in college and in the NBA, and I was doing that for that long."
Korver also discovered that his style of jumping from side to side could be improved to prevent injury. Because he's always been slightly pigeon-toed, he had been trying to take off from the outside of his feet. He was told at P3 that redundant pounding in that position likely led to his two stress fractures in college at Creighton. So while at the center, he learned to turn his legs more inward to utilize his big toes as the push-off points in order to fire the three key hip abductor muscles in his inner high.
There was a third subtlety Korver left P3 understanding about his shooting.
"The craziest thing was when I had my elbow just a quarter of an inch off to the side, my shot felt different," he said. "I had to shoot with my elbow completely straight or it would hurt. It was like so strange."
While Korver had two slight hiccups in May and October 2009—he underwent minor right wrist and left knee surgery, respectively—he came back that season to break Kerr's record in 52 games. And since then, he's only missed 13 regular-season games, including this season.
Now 11 years into his career, Korver feels that he's finally at the peak of his game, having learned to adjust to the mechanical changes he went through during the past five summers at P3. In fact, last year, he and his wife, Juliet, who's a musical artist, decided to make Santa Barbara their offseason home.
While many players need work on their shooting during their career, what Korver has accomplished on and off the court—an already standout shooter coming into the league and then going through technique alterations several seasons in, and still being successful—is truly incredible.
"For the longest time, shooting was all about rhythm," he said. "Find your rhythm, get a good look and make one and get an easier shot and all this stuff. Now, I'm understanding your mechanics inside and out makes a difference. When I'm warming up and I miss one, I know why I missed it. It's always trying to find that balance of rhythm, but also making sure your mechanics are as perfect as possible. And that's been a really helpful thing for me.
"I feel like the last three years, I feel like I've made strides in this, and all of it comes from understanding your body and keeping things healthy—and not just relying on rhythm. Sports science is just booming. You're going to see more and more guys push into their 30s, and possibly into their 40s, if they're willing to do the daily work now."
Not only does Korver have strong health maintenance on his side—he does weekly ankle ropes, receives leg massages about every three to four weeks and is involved with Fusionetics, an advanced injury prevention program run by renowned physical therapist Dr. Mike Clark—he's also benefited from Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer's pass-first system, which has produced an NBA-high 25.4 assists per game.
(Budenholzer was the offensive architect during his 18 years in San Antonio, and the Spurs are actually a very close second at 25.2 assists per game. Go figure.)
Kerr, who played for four years under Budenholzer, said Korver is "a really good fit" in Atlanta. Korver agreed.
"It's been great," he said. "I feel like this is when I'm at my best—when the ball is moving, there's space on the floor and I'm able to find the open spot, move without basketball. There's a lot of opportunity here and we have a lot of guys who can shoot. Jeff Teague has really blossomed as a point guard these last couple years, so it's a system that (general manager) Danny Ferry and the guys who are running this, they're finding the right kind of guys that fit this kind of system and it's just a good fit for a lot of people."
Korver said he occasionally finds open space because the defender who's glued to him—he even hears opposing players yell out his name a lot, designating his position—has to step away to scramble in a rotation. That's because the ball flows so well in the half-court offense, according to Korver, and Budenholzer doesn't have to call consistent plays for him. Korver is also smart about darting out to far corners on the court during second-chance opportunities, so his closest defender can't reach him when receiving a skip pass.
Budenholzer also said Korver's presence alone on the court—he even joked that he maximizes Korver's skill set by "just keeping him on the court"—helps "create so much space for us" offensively for other players to get open looks, and keeps the team locked in on the defensive end. Korver is averaging an overlooked 1.1 steals per game, and since Dec. 28, the Hawks are holding opponents to 97.1 points per game.
"I think having him out there just makes a lot of things work, and that's including when he doesn't get the ball or doesn't make shots or anything—he's just somebody that the defense has to honor," Budenholzer said. "And then probably as important or more important is just taking advantage of his competitive spirit and his willingness to do anything defensively. I think that's probably what's underrated, too—how he competes on the defensive end and how he cares on the defensive end. He's one of our leaders and it's been invaluable to us."
Kerr on Korver: No Comparison
A big reason why Korver is able to thrive as the main shooter in the Hawks' free-flowing system, which features multiple screens in a single play, is he feels he's always had a natural high conditioning level. Not many defenders are able to keep up with him.
"Some guys can jump really high; some people are really fast," Korver said. "I guess one of the things that I was given I can run for a long time. It's probably not the most desirable one, but it's the one that I got, and I just try to use it."
With that gift, Korver learned how to be effective coming off screens while growing up in Iowa, and he has mastered that skill through the years.
"I think he's very attuned with his shot," Budenholzer said. "He's very attuned with quickly trying to understand how he's going to get his shots in the system and with his teammates—his attention to detail with execution, screens and how to use them and how to read them, with passes on point and on time. I think if fans were able to be around him every day, they would just be really impressed."
Korver said AAU programs today aren't teaching kids enough about those kinds of fundamentals, which helped him become a star player at Pella High School. He also studied Larry Bird, Reggie Miller and the latest legend of the bunch, Ray Allen, to see how they set themselves up to score without the ball and make the right pass when over-helped. He calls them "guys who know how to play the game with shooting as a strength of theirs."
Allen, who's six years older than Korver, appreciates what the Midwest marksman is doing this season.
"It's always great because there's never a moment where you can see somebody playing that well, and the consistency is what you appreciate," Allen said, "and you've got to work at it every day and it's never guaranteed."
Allen and Korver, along with the likes of J.J. Redick and Klay Thompson, represent only a handful of players who excel as three-point shooters in the motion of a team's half-court offense. Kerr described the difficulty of the art form, noting that with the emphasis on the long ball in today's game, Korver's streak can't be diminished based on the consistency of his specialized craft.
"First of all, you have to be in great shape to do that," Kerr said. "Secondly, it's not an easy shot when you've been running a figure eight all over the court and then all of a sudden you catch the ball on the move with a guy trailing you 24 feet out and you've got to turn and get your balance and go up for a shot."
Kerr also said that because Korver has a few unique qualities that separate him from other standout shooters in his class, no player comparison came to mind.
"Not for me," Kerr said. "What impresses me is just his size and strength and ability to get the shot off quickly from a pretty high release point. That's one of the reasons he's able to get a lot of shots off—that he's pretty upright and he doesn't take a lot of time to get that shot off."
In addition to having the stamina to run off screens in half-court sets, Korver has the burst of speed to usually be the first Hawks player up the court, looking to set up for a transition three-pointer. He always seems to be a step ahead of the defense, and Teague always has a read on him. Teague said their playing relationship hasn't needed development in practice because Korver knows how to get open.
"When we get the rebound, the first person I look at is Kyle to see where he is," said Teague, who's making a bid for the All-Star team with averages of 16.6 points and 7.8 assists for the third-place Hawks (20-18). "He's one of the best shooters in the NBA history. I'm probably going to go to his side because the court is going to be more open. I would just say that they definitely deny him, and I know that if I'm going to run straight toward him, I'm going to get an easy layup."
With Budenholzer instilling confidence in his team to shoot whenever they're open—at least six players make at least one three-pointer per game—he promotes secondary-break opportunities for a shot within the initial stages of the shot clock. Many times, that's for Korver to get a quick three with the defense still setting up.
"We want to play with the early pick-and-rolls; we want to space the floor," Korver said. "It kind of goes back to when I played with Allen Iverson. He would always be looking for me to cut behind him, and I kind of found a way early in my career to play that way. It was a place where I could get good shots on the break.
"As long as you have a coach that allows you to do that, it's fantastic for me. Not all coaches like that. When I was in Utah, we ran an old-school flex system, and you weren't always allowed to shoot a three until it got inside to Carlos (Boozer) or someone else first. Here, Coach gives me the green light."
Both in Philadelphia in 2004-05 and this season, Korver is averaging his most makes per game from downtown (2.8). Within his current points average of 12.4 per game, his accuracy is 49.3 percent from the field—which ties his career high from 2009-10—and he's shooting 46.6 percent in above-the-break threes, 50 percent in corner threes and 51.2 percent from mid-range, according to NBA.com/Stats. He also provides the team a plus-4.4 plus/minus per 48 minutes when he's on the court (minus-3.5 off it).
And what impact does Korver have on his point guards? When Iverson played with Korver with the Sixers in 2004-05, he averaged a career-high 7.9 assists per game (the following season, he was at 7.4). This season, Teague has a career high in assists—his spark also coming from Tony Parker-esque pick-and-roll lessons from Budenholzer.
As Korver Goes, So Go the Hawks
Korver's emphasis in preparing for games is not bulk shooting, but picking his spots on the court where he thinks he's going to get looks depending on the opponent. He said a lot of players over-shoot before games, while his goal is to "find a happy place where my mechanics meet the rhythm—and then I want to stop."
Some nuances include taking a few more shots to get accustomed to brighter arenas—"I've always enjoyed kind of darker on the outside," he said—and if he's playing in a cold city or arena, he'll just blow into his hands to make them warm.
"I'm not a lotion guy," he said. "I actually have cold, clammy hands just naturally in life, so I'm always trying to warm them up."
Teague said he's never seen his sidekick miss post-shootaround work with the assistant coaches. In fact, Korver is typically the last player to leave the court after shootaround, and that extra effort has motivated Teague to join him at times. Occasionally, the two of them have three-point contests around the arc, but Teague never wins. Even one time when Teague made four out of five baskets in different spots, Korver was mostly 5-of-5.
In fact, Teague witnessed Korver drain 89 out of 100 long balls in one session.
"He was a little upset that he only got 89," Teague said.
As for the streak, Korver said while he would like to build on it, he really feels that it's a team mark based on how well the guys play together. And it's that team approach that will help him keep the streak alive. It all starts with Teague.
"Some games, if he doesn't have a three going into the second half, then I'll be kind of pressed to get him the ball," Teague said. "I'm running all types of plays for him to get a three and he tells me, 'Just play, just play, just play.' And I'm like, 'Nah, we've got to keep this record going. I'm going to get you the ball; you're going to get a three.' And every time, he makes a big shot. It's not that he's just hitting threes; he's hitting big shots for us."
While the Heat and Indiana Pacers sit atop the East, the rest of the conference is in flux. But one of the biggest threats below the top two spots is Mr. Korver, who has in many ways single-handedly been the engine of the Hawks offense. Even without Al Horford, who on Dec. 26 suffered a complete tear of his right pectoral muscle, the Hawks upset the Pacers, 97-87, last week, led by Korver's 17 points on 3-of-5 shooting from three-point range.
Kerr, who has five championship rings and hit the series-winner in the 1997 NBA Finals with the Chicago Bulls, ultimately knows how important a player like Korver is to a team's playoff success—when games become a chess match of half-court matchups.
"The thing that goes unnoticed I think is what he does for a team's offense," Kerr said. "Kyle can run through eight screens, come off one side and the defense has to pay so much attention to him that they shift, and then all of a sudden you get a pick on the weak side and a guy gets a wide-open 15-footer.
"Nothing goes into the box score for Korver, but because of his movement, his teammate got an open shot. He just makes your half-court offense so much more effective when you've got a threat coming off screens and constantly putting pressure on the defense like that."
The Korver Playbook
Here are five main plays (from simple to complex) run for Korver, based on game film:
1. Single screen: The point guard will set up on one wing, and the big man from the top of the key will set a screen on the opposite wing. Korver will look for a pass from the point guard for a jump shot off the curl.
Note: Power forward Paul Millsap is a consistent screener for Korver, and they have familiarity together from their Jazz days, from 2007 to 2010. Millsap knows how to slip abruptly behind Korver's defender, who might think Millsap is dipping into the paint for a feed inside.
That creativity helps Korver jump out quicker ahead of his defender for the catch-and-shoot opportunity, where he's tops in the league. Based on jump shots outside of 10 feet where a player possessed the ball for two seconds or less and took no dribbles, Korver is No. 1 in catch-and-shoot three-pointers made per game, entering Monday's play (2.5; Thompson is second at 2.4, according to SportVU).
2. Double screen: The point guard on one wing will set a down screen in the baseline corner for Korver, who will run off another screen set by the big man near the top of the key, and then Korver will look for a pass from the player on the opposite wing.
3. Dual-screen action: The big man at the top of the key will set a pick-and-roll screen for the point guard on one wing, while the player on the opposite wing will set a down screen for Korver in the baseline corner. This dual-screen action forces the defense to pay attention to the point guard attacking, the big man rolling, Korver running off the screen—the focal point of the play—and then his screener quickly cutting backdoor.
4. Baseline screen: The big man from the elbow corner will act like he's coming down to set a down screen for Korver in one baseline corner, and then Korver will run down the baseline off an actual screen by the other big man and set up for a three-pointer in the opposite corner.
If Korver catches the ball and can't get a shot off, the big man who set the screen down the baseline will run a pick-and-roll with Korver. Korver, unlike many other top three-point shooters, is able to put the ball on the floor a couple of times and pull up, or see the open man (a career-high 2.9 assists per game this season).
5. Triangle-like action: The point guard will have the ball in the post, and the big man will be on the wing. Korver will cut through the paint and set a back screen for the big man to catch a lob pass from the point guard. But that's really done to throw off the defense, so Korver can do a U-cut from the screen he set and dart to the baseline corner and set up for three-pointer, taking a hand-off or drop-off pass from the point guard.