The Eastern Conference Finals may have just been decided in the worst possible way.
Nobody knows yet how bad DeMarre Carroll’s leg injury is yet. The Hawks are calling it a knee sprain for now, but it looks bad. Even if it isn’t as bad as it seemed at the time, Carroll couldn’t put weight on it after the Hawks’ Game 1 home loss to the Cavs, and it’s highly unlikely he plays in at least the next game, if not longer.
Which is an awful prospect, both for Carroll (coming up on free agency) and the Hawks, who now face the task of beating the best player in the world without the guy on their roster most equipped to guard him. Carroll has been the least talked-about member of the Hawks starting five, the only one that wasn’t named an All-Star. But he’s their best perimeter defender, and it’s not really close.
The most logical choice to guard LeBron James with Carroll out is Paul Millsap, who handled most of those duties after Carroll went down on Wednesday. Millsap can handle him in small stretches, but as the Hawks’ primary game plan (which he is now by default), he’s not nearly as well equipped as Carroll to do that heavy lifting.
In addition to creating a much greater defensive burden on the rest of the Hawks, Carroll’s injury is going to force their bench — which has been problematic for much of the playoffs — into a larger role. Kent Bazemore will probably get the starting nod at small forward, and he was solid in 16 minutes in Game 1, scoring 16 points on 4-of-5 shooting. He’ll bring energy on offense, but he isn’t nearly the defender Carroll is. What the Hawks got out of Dennis Schroder, Pero Antic and Mike Muscala off the bench on Wednesday is not encouraging. Maybe Mike Budenholzer will dust off Mike Scott, who’s fallen out of the rotation for most of the playoffs.
The Cavs won Game 1, but they’re still hobbled by injuries. They were carried on Wednesday night by J.R. Smith setting a playoff career high and hitting eight three-pointers. For the most part, this is still a series that James will have to do the heavy lifting for. The Hawks’ best hope was to make that workload as heavy as possible, and at least for the short term, they will have to find a way to do that without their defensive ace.
Carroll will get an MRI on Thursday, and he and the Hawks will have to hope that it’s “only” a strain or a hyperextension, not something much worse. Either way, they’ll probably be without him for at least the rest of this series, and that makes their road to the Finals much more difficult.