LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers entered Wednesday's first contest of the Eastern Conference Finals vs. the Atlanta Hawks having never won a road Game 1 in 14 tries for the franchise and eight for their superstar. While the Cavs entered this series as favorites, they were going to need a special performance to change their history. It came from an unlikely source in their 97-89 win.
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Boom-or-bust midseason pickup J.R. Smith starred with 28 points on a Cavs playoff record eight three-pointers, including 17 points on five triples during a 22-4 run over the end of the third and beginning of the fourth quarters. LeBron added 31 points (12-of-26 FG), eight boards, and six assists on a night that found the hobbled Kyrie Irving rendered ineffective over only 27 minutes. The Hawks organized an impressive comeback attempt late but now must face the prospect of losing wing and primary LeBron defender DeMarre Carroll for the rest of the series (or more) after he left in the fourth quarter with what could be a serious left leg injury.
Cleveland's winning run changed the form of what had previously been a tight, evenly played game. The Cavaliers and Hawks found themselves in a 63-63 tie just inside of the 5:00 mark of the third quarter, a reflection of the quality and competitiveness of the matchup up until that point. What followed showed the best of J.R. Smith, a player known best as a source of frustration but whose talent has made him a vital part of the Cavs. Few outside shooters get as hot as Smith, and he proved it by making 2-of-3 three-pointers in the final three minutes of the third (plus a long two) and his first three long-range attempts of the fourth for 17 of the Cavs' 22 points over 5:28 of play. The previous tie turned into an 85-67 Cleveland lead:
Smith was terrific throughout the game, putting up his 28 points on 10-of-16 shooting from the field and 8-of-12 from beyond the arc. While most teams cannot rely on such outbursts from their reserves, this is part of what Smith does. He is a very streaky shooter fully capable of winning a game by himself. As the video shows, his buckets were not especially easy — these are contested looks we typically associate with star players. If Smith frustrates, it's because he alternates these tremendous performances with questionable decisions and mistakes. Yet understanding that give-and-take is essentially a prerequisite for employing him, and the Cavs will certainly be glad to get a few more lines like this one through the series and beyond.
The Cavs needed every bit of Smith's impact, too. Although James bounced back from a fairly rough first quarter to put up his 31 points, he went just 4-of-14 from the field in the second half and never seemed to reach a peak level as either a scorer or facilitator. Smith's play was even more important due to the health of Kyrie Irving, who was out at the end of the third and played a little more than three minutes to open the fourth. It's been well established that Irving is playing through pain in the postseason, but he told TNT's Rachel Nichols after the game that his left knee injury is now worse:
Kyrie Irving confirms he aggravated his left knee injury. Says it's the most frustrating stretch of his career but does plan to play Game 2
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) May 21, 2015
With Kevin Love out and Irving not at full strength, it seems clear that the Cavs are going to depend on LeBron and whichever role player happens to step up (or not) in any particular game. Smith and Tristan Thompson (14 points on 5-of-7 FG and five offensive boards) did their jobs on Wednesday, but it was a mixed bag otherwise with Iman Shumpert, James Jones, and Matthew Dellavedova shooting a combined 1-of-16 from the field and 0-of-10 from beyond the arc. The highs and lows were extreme in this one, but they still indicate the largely undependable nature of the Cavs' offense right now. Their success in this series could depend on managing to identify which players have the ability to contribute from game to game.
At least the Cavs know they have LeBron. On the other side, the Hawks continued their perilous journey through a postseason in which they have struggled to reproduce the versatile, balanced play that made them such a handful in the regular season. Jeff Teague excelled early and scored 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting in the first half, but he had trouble finishing in the second half and finished with 27 points on 24 shots. Outside of Al Horford (16 points on 8-of-12 FG) and reserve Kent Bazemore (10 points on five shots in 16 minutes), the Hawks lacked efficient scoring options and shot only 4-of-23 from beyond the arc. Kyle Korver's inability to get open shots (3-of-5 FG, only one of which came in the first half) continues to confound observers and has made the Hawks offense significantly less potent. The ball movement and five-man excellence of the regular season is simply not there for Atlanta.
On the bright side, the defensive effort was there on Wednesday, and there's no great shame in being defeated by Smith's ability to hit contested threes. But the challenge will become significantly tougher if they are without Carroll, the team's most consistent scorer in the playoffs and best perimeter defender throughout the season. Carroll scored only five points on 2-of-7 shooting in 35 minutes in Game 1, but he did a solid job defending LeBron. If he can't play, then the Hawks have no good secondary options. Paul Millsap did a nice job on James over the final few minutes in this one and has the ability to do fine over a whole series, but Atlanta can't afford to sacrifice his impact at the offensive end in order to contain LeBron. That leaves iffy options like Bazemore and Mike Scott, both of whom are not likely to play 30-plus minutes without creating other problems. And head coach Mike Budenholzer certainly isn't going to rely on Korver, who decided it'd be better to run away instead of impeding a game-clinching LeBron dunk with 37 seconds remaining in regulation:
It's safe to say that the Hawks are not happy to have lost reserve wing Thabo Sefolosha to a broken leg allegedly suffered at the hands of the NYPD. They could really use him right now.
Regardless of their ill fortune, the Hawks are far from a lost cause in this series. Teague's early success getting to the hoop suggests that he can repeat it in other games in this series, and it's very likely that Smith won't set a franchise record for playoff three-pointers three more times in the next six games. The Cavs are from a juggernaut and can be beaten by a team playing at its best.
However, it's worth wondering if the Hawks are currently able to reach the high levels of their 60-win season even with a healthy Carroll. Atlanta faced adversity several times against the much less impressive Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards and was still only able to raise their play enough to squeak by. For all the Cavs' faults and injury-imposed limits, they have the best player of his generation and enough talented role players to cobble together three more wins. If the Hawks can flip a switch, they're going to have to do it very soon.
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