Everything was in place.
The crowd at Philips Arena was rocking, the Atlanta Hawks were zooming the ball all over the court, and optimism was flowing. Then, JR Smith happened. Smith went "supernova" in the second half, Atlanta's offense collapsed and on an uglier note, DeMarre Carroll suffered what could be a devastating injury. When the clock went to triple zeroes, the Hawks fell by a final score of 97-89, and the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers claimed a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The early going on Wednesday night lived up to the billing. The crowd was lit from the opening tip, and the Hawks played quite well in the opening minutes. Atlanta raced to a 11-3 run to claim an early seven-point lead, and in the first five minutes, the Hawks had five assists to go along with 7 of 11 shooting from the field. Jeff Teague led the charge with 9 points in the first 8 minutes, and that combined with some strong defense allowed the Hawks to lead by a margin of 26-20 at the end of the first quarter.
However, there was a problem throughout the first half, and that occurred on the defensive glass. Cleveland claimed seven offensive rebounds in the first quarter in order to stay close despite 35% shooting, and overall, the Cavaliers out-rebounded the Hawks by a 24-14 margin the first 24 minutes.
In the second quarter, Cleveland made their run with a 15-5 spurt engineered by a trio of three-point field goals from J.R. Smith. That push gave the Cavs the lead at 35-33, and while the home team would quickly recover, it was a back and forth affair that ended up knotted at 51-51 at the break. LeBron James keyed Cleveland's onslaught with 14 points in the period, and Atlanta struggled against him individually despite throwing a variety of looks in James' direction.
On one hand, it felt as if the Hawks let things get away prior to halftime. The team shot a blistering 58% from the field (including 17 points on 7 of 12 shooting from Teague), but on the flip side, Atlanta allowed Cleveland to shoot 50% and with that coupled with the troubles on the glass, there was an argument that the tie score could be a blessing in disguise.
That "blessing" quickly became a curse, however, as the Cavs got the better of the third quarter. First, Cleveland put together a 9-2 run to take their largest advantage of the night (to that point). Then, after the Hawks stabilized things, the Cavs went on another 8-0 run to claim an eight-point lead. The second spurt was the complete package, featuring some insanely questionable (I'll be kind) officiating from Scott Foster and company and a pair of threes from JR Smith. When the dust settled, Smith had 19 points in 24 minutes and the Hawks trailed by a score of 74-67 with 12 minutes remaining.
Sadly, the third quarter troubles didn't go away to begin the fourth. Cleveland stormed out of the gate with three more threes from J.R. Smith (bringing his total to 28 with nearly 10 minutes remaining), and before the Hawks could even scratch, it was an 18-point deficit and the game was in serious peril. However, Atlanta would respond with a 7-0 spurt of their own, led by Jeff Teague, and with 8:39 remaining, the gap was much more manageable at 85-74.
The momentum wouldn't continue, though, as LeBron scored five straight following a timeout to quickly place the Hawks in an ugly position again. Still, an even worse event occurred shortly after, as DeMarre Carroll injured his knee is horrific fashion at the 4:59 mark. At that point, the Hawks trailed by 14 points, and things looked quite bleak.
The home team would (quite valiantly) come back as they have all season, though, and in short order, the deficit was cut to six at 91-85 with 1:56 on the clock. Despite some uneven play from Jeff Teague, Atlanta would climb closer after a broken sequence led to a Kent Bazemore lay-up with 47 seconds to play and the scoreboard reflected a 91-87 score after what was a 13-1 overall run.
That was the end of the positives.
LeBron James waltzed through the lane for a dunk on the ensuing possession, and after Paul Millsap missed a three on the other end, the result was virtually guaranteed. In the end, it was a 97-89 defeat for the Hawks in Game 1, and with danger looming in the form of DeMarre Carroll's injury, optimism is tough to come by in Atlanta.
There will be more to come in this space, but the Cavs lead 1-0 and the Hawks might be short-handed for the remainder of the series.