The Atlanta Hawks dropped Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals 97-89 Wednesday night, but the biggest loss could be that of DeMarre Carroll who went down with an ugly knee injury in the fourth quarter. Carroll's status going forward likely won't be determined until sometime on Thursday after he undergoes an MRI examination. His injury casts a dark shadow over where we would normally be talking about adjustments that need to be made over what could still be a long series.
It was adjustments and missed opportunities that head coach Mike Budenholzer focused on following the game. "I think between tonight and Game 2, the mindset is there are lots of things that we can do better, a few things that we can build on, but there's a stretch early in the fourth quarter were they were able to create a little bit of separation and a lead. A few things happened during that time that we've got to do better and I think, if we continue to attack and we continue to play with pace and move the ball better, then I think that's going to give us our best chance going into Game 2."
A pair of Jeff Teague free throws with 4:57 remaining in the third quarter tied the game at 63-63. Cleveland embarked on a 22-4 run and led 85-67 with 9:59 remaining in the game. J.R. Smith scored 17 of his 28 points during that span and finished the game with eight three-pointers. The Hawks looked a bit rattled during that stretch and the officiating didn't seem to help. Still that is a situation that they have to fight through and Smith and the Cavaliers did a great job of seizing the opportunity.
"The third quarter, I mean I really can't point to anything that we necessarily did wrong," said Al Horford when asked about his team's third quarter struggles. "You've got to give them credit. They kept executing. They got hot there scoring the ball."
There is some merit to what Horford was saying. According to NBA.com's SportVU data, Smith was 6-of-9 on contested field goal attempts with presumedly most of those attempts coming from the perimeter.
"We have to figure out a way to come out to a quicker start in the third," Horford added. "We only had 16 points in the third quarter. So we need to be better there. As far as DeMarre, we're hoping he's okay. I'm sure tomorrow he'll get an MRI and things like that, but we're just hoping for the best for D.C."
That is the cruel rub for the Hawks in this series now. Instead of focusing on adjustments to help in rebounding or in defending LeBron James, they may be forced to rewrite the game plan entirely if Carroll misses significant time. Atlanta is already without Thabo Sefolosha for the playoffs and the potential loss of Carroll would eliminate both of their top defensive wing options which is less than ideal in a series against LeBron James.
Budenholzer didn't want to get into specifics on how the Hawks might adjust if Carroll wasn't able to play, but it is clear that a lot more responsibility would fall on Kent Bazemore. "DeMarre is a perimeter defender, player," said Budenholzer when asked if Carroll's injury might lead to increased playing time for the likes of Mike Muscala or Mike Scott. "I think most likely, more Kent Bazemore and some players like that. Mike Scott and Mike Muscala are always ready. We'll see what we learn tomorrow and figure out what gives us the best chance."
That means more Bazemore and potentially more small forward minutes for Korver with the possibility of Shelvin Mack seeing more minutes.
"Just got to keep playing," Jeff Teague said when asked about potentially moving on without Carroll. "Somebody has to step up. DeMarre's been our glue guy all year, been playing well in the playoffs, been our best player in the past couple of series. Hopefully, he can get back healthy soon, but one of the guys in there has to step up."
The Hawks haven't quit all season and it is foolish to expect them to do so now. They wore the "next man up" philosophy well throughout the regular season. However, there is no sugarcoating that with Sefolosha already down, Carroll might have been the last player the Hawks could afford to lose to injury. There was some optimism following the game that Carroll's injury might not have been as bad as it looked, but even if it is just a sprain he will likely miss some time and may not be 100 percent for the remainder of the series. And that is the best case scenario.
At any rate, a difficult task just got a lot harder.