The question was never “Will LeBron James be good?” going into the Eastern Conference Finals. LeBron is LeBron, still the best player walking the face of the earth.
The question is would he get help?
On a night where Kyrie Irving looked nowhere near healthy, LeBron James got his help from J.R. Smith, who knocked down a franchise-record eight threes in his one-man quest to prove the hot hand theory. That, combined with some quality play from Tristan Thompson and some good defense, was enough.
The Cleveland Cavaliers went into Atlanta and took Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals from the Hawks 97-89. Game 2 is set for Friday night in Atlanta.
The new primary concern for the Hawks is they almost certainly will be without DeMarre Carroll for at least a few games. Midway through the fourth quarter, he was driving through the lane and planted on his left leg to leap when his knee just buckled. He fell to the ground in pain clutching that knee and had to be helped straight to the locker room. He will get an MRI on Thursday, and we hope the injury isn’t serious. That said, even if it is not I don’t see any way he could play Friday — and without him the Hawks are without their best perimeter defender.
The Hawks looked good as a team in the first half, in part because Jeff Teague was in attack mode — he had 17 of his 27 points in the first half and Atlanta as a team shot 58 percent. Still the Hawks could not pull away thanks to LeBron’s 14 points in the second quarter and the Cavaliers seven offensive rebounds in the first quarter. It was tied at the half 51-51.
The game was won by Cleveland during the J.R. Smith show late in the third. The Cavaliers went on a 22-4 run spanning the third and fourth quarters led by Smith knocking down contested three after contested three. LeBron made his plays in the fourth to maintain the lead, including a monster dunk that had Kyle Korver scurrying. LeBron finished with 31.
Kyle Korver’s numbers show how the Hawks offense never got moving — he took just five shots total, four from three (hitting two). Al Horford had an efficient 16 points, but the Hawks ball movement that defined them during the regular season. Cavaliers defenders started to play off Teague and Dennis Shroeder and dare them to shoot.
When the Hawks did shoot, it didn’t go in — they were 4-of-22 from beyond the arc in this game.
If Atlanta is going to bounce back in Game 2, they will need those shots to fall. They will need much more out of Paul Millsap (3-of-11 shooting), and they will need Kent Bazemore to step up with Carroll out.
For the Cavaliers, there are questions about Kyrie Irving and his leg. They had defensive lapses. Can they count on Smith or someone else to step up again?
But it’s a lot easier to ask those questions when you are up 1-0 like the Cavaliers.