The Hawks got off to an ideal start at home, taking a 26-20 lead into the second quarter of Game 1. LeBron James uncharacteristically struggled to find a rhythm early on and had to take a seat with two fouls with a few minutes remaining in the quarter. He only had two points then, and Atlanta appeared to be in control of the game early on.
Then J.R. Smith caught fire to tie the game at 33 with scorching hot three-point shooting. This unconscious shooting display from Smith became a theme for the night, and the Hawks ultimately lost 97-89. JR finished a ridiculous 8-12 from long range for 28 points. It was a signature game for Smith, who has locked into a red-hot shooting zone at the perfect time for Cleveland. Of course, JR is known to lose his touch as quickly as he finds it, so this will be a key factor throughout the series.
More seriously for Atlanta, DeMarre Carroll suffered a potentially season-ending knee injury midway through the fourth quarter. He slammed the floor with his hand as he writhed in pain under the basket. He had to be helped off the floor, and this is an especially awful situation for an impending free agent who was due for a massive raise. Hopefully Carroll and the Hawks find that the injury isn’t as bad as it looked, but Atlanta could be in a serious hole if Carroll is lost for the playoffs.
The absence of Thabo Sefolosha was already critical for the Hawks, but losing Carroll would open a void on the perimeter that Kent Bazemore is far from filling. Carroll had quietly blossomed into a highly valuable two-way player who Atlanta could depend on to defend opposing wings and knock down enough threes to keep defenses honest. Sefolosha skews more toward defensive specialist, but he gave the Hawks a similar skillset that meshed well with their All-Stars. Lacking both of them, the Hawks are officially in the danger zone versus LeBron and the Cavaliers.
James exploded after his poor opening quarter, finishing the half with 16 points, four rebounds and three assists. His huge second quarter kept Cleveland in the game after Smith’s first shooting barrage. Kyle Korver only got one shot up in the first half, which he made. Notably, he drained three jumpers that were negated by offensive fouls in that time. In the second half, LeBron and JR combined once again to bury Atlanta into too big of a hole. James finished with 31 points, eight boards and six assists. His thunderous dunk with under a minute remaining put the seal on Cleveland’s victory.
On the positive side, Jeff Teague had a great game. He finished with a strong 27 points on 11-24 shooting, but backup Dennis Schröder had a brutal night. Mike Budenholzer gave him a crack in several lineups in the first half, but Schröder made just two of his seven shots. Coach Bud had a far quicker hook in the second half. The Cavaliers gave Schröder tons of space on the perimeter, but he seemingly lacked all confidence in his jumper. On one memorable possession, James literally dared him to shoot an open three. He airballed it.
Bazemore stepped up after a tough round against Washington. He made four of five shots for 10 points, including a key contested layup as part of Atlanta’s ill-fated late comeback attempt. He added four assists and four rebounds and also drained a clutch buzzer-beater to end the first half. Already a key reserve for Atlanta because of his semi-ability to guard James, Bazemore will need to continue playing well in a bigger role for the Hawks to have a chance if Carroll is out.
Paul Millsap did a pretty good job when assigned to James, but he struggled to produce on offense. It’s not easy to excel on both ends when tasked with covering LeBron–ask Jimmy Butler. Millsap missed eight of 11 shots but did make 7-10 at the free throw line. Atlanta actually outscored Cleveland with Millsap, Teague and the ever-excellent Al Horford on the floor. Still, an unusually muted night from Korver (although not that unusual of late) and a quiet game from Carroll prior to his injury were too much for Atlanta to overcome.
The Hawks can get right back into the thick of it with a win in Game 2 at home. Unfortunately, the potentially serious injury to Carroll looms over Atlanta for now.