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Do Atlanta Hawks Stand a Chance vs. Cavaliers Without DeMarre Carroll?

Alec Nathan@@AlecBNathanFeatured ColumnistMay 21, 2015

USA Today

Through three-and-a-half quarters of a 97-89 Game 1 loss, the Atlanta Hawks looked physically overwhelmed against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

They had a tough time containing LeBron James (31 points, eight rebounds, six assists), got bludgeoned on the boards (49-37) and appeared submissive on the offensive end against a more muscular Cleveland team coming off a six-game slugfest against the Chicago Bulls.

That was bad enough.

Then, with under five minutes to go in the final frame, DeMarre Carroll tumbled to the floor and suffered what appeared to be a non-contact injury to his left knee.

"Hard to see that," Hawks swingman Kyle Korver told reporters, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chris Vivlamore. "We love him like a brother."

Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix provided an instant snapshot:

Chris Mannix @ChrisMannixYS

DeMarre Carroll's left knee buckled badly on that play. Being helped off the floor. Putting no weight on it. Looks pretty bad.

According to Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick, Carroll was seen moving with the assistance of crutches following the loss:

Ethan J. Skolnick @EthanJSkolnick

DeMarre Carroll on crutches, so you can draw your own conclusions about the rest of this series

A firm diagnosis is still elusive, but the Hawks are temporarily classifying Carroll's injury as a knee sprain before official word gets handed down:

Atlanta Hawks @ATLHawks

Coach Bud says doctors told him DeMarre has a knee sprain and will have an MRI tomorrow.

From so many standpoints, any potential time Carroll misses could wind up representing a death blow to Atlanta's title hopes.

Defensively, he's the one stout perimeter option the Hawks had to throw at James. During the regular season, Carroll held him to 2-of-13 shooting, according to NBA.com/Stats on Twitter, and his coach readily acknowledged that profound impact.

"DeMarre all year has taken the challenge of guarding the opponent's best wing and best perimeter player," head coach Mike Budenholzer told reporters before Game 1, per CBS Sports' Zach Harper. "He has a high belief in his ability to guard. He knows that his teammates are there to help him and participate with him. He just loves the challenges. He's a great competitor."

Through the first two rounds, Atlanta posted a defensive rating of 99.9 with Carroll on the floor—which trumped the team's seventh-ranked regular-season mark (100.7) by nearly a full point.

That reliability is a major reason why Carroll appeared headed for a big payday this summer, when he's slated to become an unrestricted free agent.

Should Carroll be forced to sit out any future games against the Cavaliers, the Hawks will be in a bind when it comes to pegging his replacement.

Kent Bazemore—who scored 10 points (4-of-5 shooting) and grabbed four rebounds in a strong 16 minutes off the bench—makes the most sense as an immediate fill-in at small forward, but he can't single-handedly provide a solution to the LeBron conundrum.

No one can, really. It's going to have to be a group effort, one spearheaded by a more conservative approach, as CBS Sports' Sam Vecenie explained:

Paul Millsap had his moments defending LeBron late in Game 1, but James is just too fast and too strong to let one-on-one coverage prevent him from dominating off the dribble in that matchup.

Additionally, the Cavaliers found ways to exploit Atlanta's coverages by getting LeBron switched onto point guard Jeff Teague in 1-3 pick-and-rolls or using his sheer advantage in the strength department to overpower Carroll in the post for jump hooks. Cleveland's possibilities aren't exactly limited there.

Another dastardly component of Carroll's exit revolves around Atlanta's struggling second unit.

If Bazemore—or whomever the preferred replacement is—slides into the starting lineup, the Hawks bench will be short-handed. That's bad news after Atlanta's reserves were outscored, 28-19, by J.R. Smith (8-of-12 shooting from three) alone and have now been outscored by 22 points in 13 playoff games.

In need of more wings, the Hawks could opt to free Mike Scott from "DNP-coach's decision" island as a way to prohibit the rotation from shrinking even more.

Crazy as it sounds, Carroll's offense is also going to be terribly difficult to replace.

Quite frankly, he's been the team's steadiest two-way player in the playoffs, and Teague admitted as much after Game 1, per CBS Sports NBA:

CBS Sports NBA @CBSSportsNBA

Jeff Teague on DeMarre Carroll: "He's been our best player the last couple of series."

After the Hawks took care of the Washington Wizards in six games, Carroll was Atlanta's leading scorer at 17.1 points per game, while shooting 52.4 percent from the field and 43.9 percent from three. On a Hawks team that's slowly and steadily watched the bottom fall out from beyond the arc, Carroll is the only Atlanta player who's hit better than 40 percent of his treys in the playoffs.

ESPN Stats & Info noted Carroll's offensive impact:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

DeMarre Carroll suffers a leg injury, leaves game. He was Hawks leading scorer in 6 of the 12 games so far in these playoffs

More jaw-dropping is how helpless the Hawks have been without Carroll's scoring. Two rounds in, Atlanta generated 105.6 points per 100 possessions with Carroll on the floor. When he hit the pine, that mark plummeted to 92.6. The Philadelphia 76erswho scored the ball worse than any team during the regular seasonaveraged 93 points per 100 possessions.

That's a problem on par with filling Carroll's spot on defense, particularly for a team that shot 4-of-23 from three Wednesday night.

As they were against the Wizards, the Hawks now find themselves in an early 1-0 hole. And while Game 1 winners in a best-of-seven format go on to win the series 77 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Info, the Hawks proved capable of defying those odds just last week.

"We just have to come out fighting," Teague said, according to the Hawks' official Twitter account. "Come out ready to play with a lot of intensity."

Without Carroll, that's their only option.

The offense will be forced to adapt, and the defense has to formulate a new plan of attack with limited turnaround time.

But more than anything, Atlanta's mental resolve will be tested in ways it hasn't been during a campaign littered with franchise firsts and record-setting achievements.

 

All statistics are courtesy of NBA.com unless noted otherwise.

Alec Nathan covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @AlecBNathan.