Earlier this season, J.R. Smith was languishing on a terrible New York Knicks team before being traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers along with Iman Shumpert. On Wednesday night, Smith led the Cavaliers to a 97-89 Game 1 victory over the Atlanta Hawks with a lights-out shooting display at Philips Arena, stealing home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals in the process.
Smith scored a playoff career-high 28 points and set a Cavaliers playoff franchise record by nailing eight three-pointers. Smith was the only Cavaliers bench player to score. James finished with 31 points, eight rebounds and sixth assists. Both Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov notched double-doubles as Cleveland dominated the rebounding battle, 49-37.
The Cavaliers' offense fell into a rut in the fourth quarter after building up an 18-point lead, going nearly seven minutes without a field goal. Kyrie Irving was on the bench down the stretch late after aggravating an injury, and James struggled to score against Paul Millsap. The Hawks, led by reserve guard Kent Bazemore, went on a 10-0 run to cut their deficit to four, but James iced the game with a massive dunk:
Jeff Teague scored 27 points for the Hawks, but the point guard didn't get enough help in Atlanta's first ever Eastern Conference Finals game. Millsap, Bazemore and Al Horford were the only other Hawks to finish in double figures. Atlanta shot just 4-of-23 from three.
Adding injury to insult, DeMarre Carroll went down with what appeared to be a nasty knee injury midway through the fourth quarter. Carroll has been a key contributor for Atlanta all season and especially in the playoffs, and he was going to be counted on to be the primary defender against James. Not only that, but Carroll is headed to unrestricted free agency this offseason, so a serious injury couldn't come at a worse time. He didn't return to the game and will get an MRI on Thursday to determine the extent of the injury.
Everything started so well for the Hawks, as they came out focused and aggressive. All the starters got in on the action in the early going, and Teague made it a point to attack Irving, who was fresh off injury. Teague scored nine quick points as Atlanta shot 61 percent in the first quarter.
The Cavaliers' offense wasn't nearly as crisp, with turnovers and poor shooting plaguing them in the opening frame. Mozgov came out ready to shoot, and the Hawks were more than willing to live with some of those looks. James racked up four assists in the early going, but two cheap fouls put him on the bench with three minutes left in the first.
While Cleveland shot just 35 percent and turned it over six times in the first quarter, a pair of Irving threes and relentless work on the offensive glass by Thompson helped keep the margin at just six points. Thompson had four of the Cavaliers' seven offensive boards in the first, continuing his impressive play throughout the postseason.
Cleveland's offense came alive at the start of the second quarter, and it was almost solely because of Smith. The Cavaliers gunner caught fire, knocking down three three-pointers in the first four minutes of the quarter. On the back of Smith's threes, Cleveland caught Atlanta at 33-33. The Cavaliers briefly took a two-point lead before the Hawks stemmed the tide and surged ahead again thanks to more aggressive play from Teague and Horford, who combined to score 10 straight Atlanta points and 14 of 18 to end the half.
However, James, playing the 4 throughout the second quarter, then went to work in the post. Carroll didn't have much success defensively, but James also often found himself against point guards thanks to the Hawks constantly switching on defense, and that was easy pickings for the four-time MVP. He scored eight points in the final four minutes of the half, and the score was tied at 51-51 after Bazemore buried a jumper at the first-half buzzer.
The third quarter was hotly contested, with the teams going back and forth. The third quarter also saw several Cavaliers get hurt. First it was James, who tweaked an ankle on a cameraman after contesting a jumper. James asked out of the game only to return shortly after a break on the bench. Shumpert and Irving then came up gimpy moments apart, and while both players later returned to the game, Irving didn't play down the stretch.
Despite the brief rash of injuries, Cleveland went up by eight points thanks to Smith again catching fire from long range. Compounding the issue for the Hawks was some questionable officiating and a field goal drought of nearly seven minutes, which was finally ended loudly by Bazemore:
Smith answered Bazemore's ferocious dunk with a step-back jumper, giving the Cavaliers a 74-67 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
With James on the bench, Cleveland started the fourth quarter on an 11-0 run behind Smith, who knocked down three more three-pointers and assisted on an alley-oop to Thompson. Atlanta responded with a 7-0 run to get James up off the bench, but the Cavaliers stopped the bleeding before holding on late.
Game 2 is on Friday in Atlanta.
3 things we learned
J.R. Smith is the Cavaliers' X-factor
LeBron is going to be LeBron, but with Irving coming off an injury and then getting hurt again, the Cavaliers desperately need scoring from other sources. Smith was that source on Wednesday, and when he has it going like he did, Cleveland becomes even more dangerous. Of course, as much as Smith can help, there are other times where he can shoot you out of games with poor shots. The Cavaliers are just hoping they get Good J.R. more often than Bad J.R.
The DeMarre Carroll injury is a huge bummer
Carroll has been playing the best basketball of his life in these playoffs, averaging over 17 points on superb efficiency in the first two rounds. His versatility is a huge asset, and he was all set to play a major role in this series. Now his series may be over because of the knee injury, which looked like a bad one. If Carroll joins Thabo Sefolosha on the pine for the season, that leaves the Hawks without their two best LeBron defenders. All we can do is hope for the best.
Jeff Teague can get his, but he needs help
Irving isn't the best defender to begin with, but he looked especially hopeless against Teague in this game. Now that Irving has aggravated a prior injury, his prospects of slowing down Teague don't look good. Matthew Dellavedova is a scrappy defender, but Teague should be able to take advantage of that matchup as well. However, Teague can't do it alone. The Hawks need to find their stroke from long range, while Dennis Schroder must make better decisions with the ball. The Cavaliers' defense deserves credit, but Atlanta should be able to function better offensively.