ATLANTA — In a game when J.R. Smith stole the momentum away from the Atlanta Hawks and slowly quieted the Phillips Arena crowd, it was a potentially devastating injury to Hawks wing DeMarre Carroll that silenced the crowd altogether and may have been the biggest story of the night.
Carroll fell to the court with 4:59 left in Atlanta’s 97-89 loss after a drive to the rim on a 1-on-1 against Iman Shumpert. There was no contact on the play, although Shumpert was called for a foul as Carroll fell.
This was not the first time Carroll has gotten hurt in the postseason. He tweaked his ankle in Game 1 against Washington but told the media after the game that there was no time to worry about injuries in the playoffs.
This one looked worrisome. Carroll couldn’t contain the pain and writhed on the floor as the Hawks’ training staff and players rushed across the court to assist him.
Carroll relied on two staffers to get to the locker room. He couldn’t put any weight on his left leg, and the team’s initial diagnosis was that the impending free agent suffered a left knee sprain. He will undergo an MRI on Thursday to determine the severity of the injury.
After the game, Carroll was using crutches in the tunnels of Philips Arena:
Not good pic.twitter.com/xckaDmH9MQ
— Joe Vardon (@joevardon) May 21, 2015
“He’s such a great teammate,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Everybody is just concerned about DeMarre … I’m hoping he’s ready to help us as soon as possible.”
After Carroll was helped to his feet with the help of teammates and the training staff, Cavaliers superstar LeBron James walked over to him to share words of encouragement and patted him on the back as the hobbled Hawk was carried off.
James had been jawing all night with Carroll, who has established himself as one of the league’s better perimeter defenders. Still, James was saddened to see Carroll get hurt.
“At the end of the day, we’re all a brotherhood,” James said. “The NBA is a brotherhood. You never want anyone to get injured – even in combat. That’s what went through my mind. Obviously I love competing against anyone who loves to compete as well. He’s one of those guys that was competing throughout the night and throughout the postseason.
“I’m not sure about the severity of the injury right now. I hope he has a recovery with whatever it is.”
Beyond Carroll’s importance to Atlanta as one of the team’s two captains and perhaps its most vocal leader, Carroll has also been one of Atlanta’s most consistent two-way players this postseason.
Faced with the possibility that Carroll’s season is over, the Hawks will need to look elsewhere if they hope to keep up with the Cavaliers and James.
“Somebody has to step up,” Hawks guard Jeff Teague said. “DeMarre has been our glue guy all year … our best player in the past couple of series.”
For the Cavaliers, their success can be traced to Smith’s hot hand. Smith became the first player in NBA history to record eight 3-pointers and eight rebounds in a postseason game. He was 10-for-16 from the field overall and 8-of-12 from deep, doubling Atlanta’s total of 3-pointers.
“When he gets hot,” Cleveland coach David Blatt acknowledged, ”he gets smoking hot.”
Blatt was also quick to commend Smith for his effort on the defensive end as he played a significant role in limiting both Carroll and Kyle Korver to single-digit point totals.
The Cavaliers had only six players score, with Smith’s playoff career-high 28 points accounting for all of their bench points. Smith made contested shot after contested shot to the point where members of Atlanta’s bench threw their arms up in exasperation. Behind Smith, the Cavaliers went on a 22-4 run in a six-minute stretch of the second half that ultimately provided enough cushion for the win.
”Once I start shooting, everybody keeps telling me to keep shooting,” said Smith, who normally doesn’t need an invitation to hoist. “It was kind of hard when I was hitting the kinds of shots I was hitting to pass the ball.”
James led the way with 31 points – all inside the arc or from the line – and cut his turnovers from nine the last time these teams met to just four. James also had eight rebounds and six assists, marking the 52nd time in his career – an NBA record – where he has gone 30-5-5 in a playoff game.
Jeff Teague led the Hawks with 27 points and four assists as he had his way on offense against a hobbled Kyrie Irving, who sat out the entire fourth quarter. But Atlanta’s offense sputtered in the second half, shooting just over 30 percent after halftime and a startling 4-of-23 from deep overall. The Hawks also took a 49-37 beating on the boards as Cavs bigs Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov both contributed double-doubles.
Game 2 is Friday night and the Hawks believe it is a must-win. To their credit, they bounced back after dropping Game 1 at home to Washington in the conference semifinals to win the series in six games.
But the Wizards didn’t have James, and the Hawks did have Carroll.
Jacob Eisenberg is a college senior at Emory University and works as an NBA columnist for Sheridan Hoops, specializing in analytics-based scouting reports for individual players. Follow him on Twitter and check out his website.