ATLANTA -- The moment came without contact, as Atlanta Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll gathered the ball and readied himself to elevate past Iman Shumpert to the rim for a layup. It was a quintessential Carroll sequence. He read the passing lane in the Cleveland halfcourt the entire way. When LeBron James looked to kick a pass out to J.R. Smith in the corner, Carroll plucked the ball out of the air and sprinted with it down the right sideline. The instant he planted his left foot, Carroll crumpled to the ground, gripping his left knee beneath the basket, writhing in pain. He'd be lifted off the court and carried to the locker room, where he was examined by team doctors.
An MRI is scheduled for Thursday for what is being called a sprained left knee.
Most afternoons after practice, Carroll can be found sitting alongside assistant coach Kenny Atkinson on a couple of red upholstered folding chairs beside the Hawks' practice court. Player and coach stare at a laptop screen and review snippet after snippet of upcoming defensive assignments for Carroll, or maybe a read Carroll made and a pretty set the staff would like to see him replicate.
A late first-round pick in 2009, Carroll bumped around the league for a few years before landing in Atlanta in the summer of 2013 with a modest two-year, $5 million deal. What the Hawks found was an earnest, eminently coachable wing who loves to work, loved to be in the gym with former assistant Quin Snyder, loves developing a floater and learning to read defenses off the dribble. Nobody has had more fun coming into his offensive game than DeMarre Carroll. And the 2015 playoffs has been his coming out party. He had six straight games of 20-plus points and has been the Hawks' most reliable offensive contributor throughout the playoffs, highlighted by a pair of decisive buckets on crafty cuts to close out Washington last week.
Even though foremost his pride remains his defense, Carroll enjoys gently ribbing the reporters who routinely ask him about the emergence of his offensive game. Just hours before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday, Carroll playfully told the scrum, "I think you media guys just picked up on my offensive game. I always had an offensive game. Now I'm just able to display it on a bigger stage."
Matching up against James in late May is the brightest stage for any NBA wing -- Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler. It's the ultimate basketball assignment, and Carroll had been waiting a lifetime for it. He'd handled James well in their two meetings this season, with LeBron hitting only 3 of 15 shot attempts with five turnovers when matched up against Carroll one-on-one.
Carroll is the embodiment of the Hawks -- toiling in anonymity, listed deep in the "others receiving votes" section of the NBA All-Defense results released on Wednesday. This series against Cleveland and LeBron is a proving ground, a bigger stage as Carroll said. And individually for Carroll it couldn't come at a better time, as his contract expires on June 30 and he'll become a free agent. Sources around the league appraise his annual value at more than $10 million a season, and the Hawks have been bracing themselves for a measurably higher number.
After losing Carroll -- and Game 1 of the series to Cleveland 97-89 -- there's nothing but uncertainty for all parties. A Hawks team already without Thabo Sefolosha, a veteran whose overlapping skill set was supposed to give the Hawks uncommon depth with a platoon of long, versatile wings, is now down to Kent Bazemore at the small forward position.
There was a trace of optimism around the Hawks in the hour following the game, with talk of no structural damage in Carroll's left knee and possibly just a hyperextension, though there won't be a certain diagnosis until the MRI results are known sometime on Thursday.
The Hawks have problems beyond any extended absence by Carroll or lack of depth on the wing. A team that looked unguardable off the dribble in the first half couldn't find daylight after intermission. To wit: In the first 24 minutes, the Hawks went 12-for-15 on 16 total drives for 26 points. Jeff Teague abused a gimpy Kyrie Irving and Matthew Dellavedova and an assortment of late-help defenders.
"I thought in the first half we did a great job of attacking the basket," Kyle Korver said. "I thought our offense looked really great. Then in the third quarter, we got in one of those funks again."
After halftime, the attack screeched to a halt. The Hawks scored a total of seven points on 11 total drives. Determined to get shooters going, drives were interrupted for kickouts or second-side options. Normally, these are positive attributes for an offense -- particularly a Hawks offense that relies on movement and secondary actions -- but the Hawks couldn't hit anything from distance. They finished the night 4-for-23 from 3-point range, which isn't workable for Atlanta or anybody else.
The Hawks are less concerned with Smith than his 8-for-12 night from beyond the arc might suggest. Smith went unconscious and the majority of those makes came against air-tight defense.
"He didn't get away," Teague said somewhat defiantly. "He just made some tough 3s. He's a good player. He made shots with people draped all over him, hands in his face."
We'll take those shots again -- the idea that good looks don't always translate to made buckets and good defense isn't always rewarded -- has become a playoff mantra for Atlanta, though one that was less pronounced on Wednesday night. A team devoted to process, the Hawks generally feel like they're rarely more than a slight adjustment or two away from restoring order. Surrendering 97 points in 92 possessions to an offensive juggernaut that had its streak shooter humming isn't atrocious. And 4-for-21 is a far outlier for a team that flourished from the perimeter throughout the season.
But rationalizations have limits this time of year, especially against competition that defies rationality. The Hawks are likely to be without their primary stopper against the most prolific basketball player in the world, and their secondary stopper can be seen at practice in a leg cast pedaling around on a scooter.
There's a strong feeling among the Hawks that this can be a Teague series, and his 17 first-half points suggested as much. He represents the Hawks' most decisive advantage against Cleveland, as the Cavs don't really have anyone to guard him. Korver needs more daylight, and the Hawks need to run a little more offense through Al Horford, which has always been their best decongestant when things get tight.
And with Carroll's status uncertain, and the shots not falling, things are certainly tight in Atlanta.