We interrupt the gloom and doom for this bulletin: In a best-of-seven, Game 1 is the least important. Losing Game 1 is no fun, but it still leaves you three losses from elimination. We note that both the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers lost Game 1 — at home, no less — of Round 2, and each won in six, each tracking the same path: Win Games 2, 4, 5 and 6.
The Hawks have already received good news this morning: According to a report by Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today, an MRI on DeMarre Carroll’s knee showed no structural damage. He has a bone bruise and a mild hyperextension. Per Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN, Carroll is listed as questionable for Friday’s Game 2.
Even if Carroll misses a game or two, let’s recall that the Washington Wizards lost John Wall, who means more to them than any one man means to the Hawks, and won Game 3 without him. It was only after Wall returned for Game 5 returned that the Hawks told hold of the series. Keep that in mind as we run through a few more points, some perhaps salient.
Lost in the rubble of Game 1 was this: Kyrie Irving wasn’t himself. He scored 10 points in 27 minutes; six of those 10 came on two first-quarter 3-pointers. Playing on a bad leg, he had no burst and couldn’t guard anybody. (Those 17 first-half points scored by Jeff Teague were partially a function of Irving’s absence of mobility.) The Cavs are already without Kevin Love; if Irving can’t play any better than he did in Game 1, Cleveland will have to scrounge for points. J.R. Smith isn’t going to go for 28 every night; if he did, he wouldn’t be J.R. Smith — he’d be Stephen Curry.
The Hawks might have been better off if Love hadn’t gotten hurt. Tristan Thompson, who was just another bench guy after Love was imported to fill out the latest made-for-LeBron Big Three, has been massive. He scored 13 points and took 10 rebounds (five offensive) Wednesday and was the best big man on the floor. Before the game, I’d made the bold assertion that the Cavs’ inside guys — Thompson and Timofey Mozgov — were the least imposing the Hawks have faced in this postseason, my belief being that the Nets’ Brook Lopez and the Wizards’ Nene and Marcin Gortat were better. But Game 1 became Thompson’s fourth consecutive double-double as a starter. Showed me, didn’t he?
Teague scored 27 points against four assists; the Hawks managed but 38 second-half points: Cause and effect? The Hawks drove through the Cavs for 51 first-half points, Teague and Dennis Schroder flashing past Irving and Matthew Dellavedova and even Smith. (Iman Shumpert was otherwise occupied in locking up Kyle Korver.) But the price of getting to the basket was ball movement. The Hawks would have only 19 assists, their lowest total of a postseason that has spanned 13 games, and made only four treys, also a playoff low. It’s unclear whether that was the Cavs’ intention — let Teague have everything he could get in exchange for disrupting the Hawks’ pace-and-space — but if so, it was a deft bit of Rope-A-Dope.
Which isn’t to say the Hawks are dopes. They’re demonstrably not. But their offense hasn’t been very good this postseason, and they have to find a way to start scoring again. They rank ninth in these playoffs in offensive efficiency, and five of the teams ahead of them have been eliminated. Over the 60-win regular season, the Hawks tied for sixth in offensive efficiency. Much of that has to do with …
Kyle Korver, who scored in single digits for the fifth consecutive game. Over the regular season, Korver didn’t have such an extended run of single-digit games, but the playoffs — stop me if you’ve heard this already — can be different. Esteemed colleague Chris Vivlamore asked Cavs coach David Blatt before Wednesday’s shootaround what facet of the Hawks’ offense Cleveland would make its point of emphasis, and Blatt essentially ducked the question. The real answer would have been the same as for every Hawks opponent since the All-Star break: “We want to run Kyle Korver off the 3-point line.” Bradley Beal did that for the Wizards. Shumpert did that in Game 1. Korver got only five shots, making two 3-pointers and finishing with nine points in 36 minutes. (Smith had 28 in 35.)
If Carroll can’t play in Game 2, who guards LeBron James? Kent Bazemore would probably get the start, unless Mike Budenholzer chooses to go tiny and deploy Teague and Dennis Schroder in tandem, which would leave Korver on LeBron, which nobody wants. Bazemore is tall and rangy and quick, but he’s not nearly as strong as Carroll. (Or Thabo Sefolosha, whose absence just became a huge deal.) By going small itself and deploying LeBron at power forward, Cleveland forced Paul Millsap to guard No. 23 for long stretches, and he did well enough: LeBron’s clinching dunk was the result of a botched switch. But Millsap on LeBron isn’t a long-term answer, if for no other reason that the Hawks’ most versatile scorer would have to expend so much effort at the other end. Sure enough, Millsap missed eight of 11 shots Wednesday and made three turnovers.
Bottom line: Aren’t the Hawks in over their head? It looked that way in the second half, but these are the playoffs and a series can turn on a dime. The Cavs were 9.4 seconds from being down 3-1 against Chicago until LeBron took matters in hand and hit the saving jumper. If the Hawks can win Game 2, this will be a series. They’ll have to play a lot better to win Game 2, and if Carroll isn’t available, playing better won’t be easy. But weird things happen in postseason. Love got hurt and Thompson emerged. Let’s see if some Hawk — the forgotten Mike Scott, perhaps? — can take a similar star turn.
Further reading: The Hawks’ shots stopped falling; J.R. Smith’s didn’t stop.
Further still: For the Hawks, a happy night turned sad.