Carroll injury looms large after Hawks drop Game 1 to Cavs

ATLANTA — Everything stopped in Philips Arena on Wednesday night. For a split-second, with forward DeMarre Carroll clutching his left knee in serious pain late in the fourth quarter, a series, and the historic season that preceded it, came to a standstill. He wasn’t getting up — and the entire Hawks bench was clearing to surround him under the basket.

At the five-minute mark of an eventual loss in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, a 97-89 Cavaliers win to steal home-court advantage, Carroll pressed into the paint in transition against opposing wings Iman Shumpert and LeBron James. When he planted his left leg, the knee buckled. Carroll felt the injury immediately, collapsing. He turned over onto his stomach and hit the hardwood floor twice. That’s when it all froze, followed by an arena-wide groan. The Hawks’ top wing defender and one of the preeminent breakout performers of the NBA playoffs, it was a disappointing moment for both the individual and the collective.

Carroll put zero weight on the leg as he was being helped off the court by backup Kent Bazemore and trainer Wally Blase.

The Hawks officially diagnosed the injury as a knee sprain and Carroll will undergo an MRI on Thursday. Still, if the journeyman forward is unable to return, it’s a series-altering injury in a conference race defined by them.

"That was a tough one. We love DeMarre like a brother. … That’s hard to watch," guard Kyle Korver said. "We’ll see tomorrow where he’s at. Obviously it didn’t look good."

Added coach Mike Budenholzer, who delivered the injury report following his team dropped Game 1 for the second consecutive series: "He’s such a great teammate, everybody’s just concerned for DeMarre and I’m hoping he’s healthy and ready to help us as soon as possible. That’s how we feel about each of our teammates, each of our players. I know there’s that same feeling for DeMarre, and it’s the playoffs. So everybody would like him to come through this as healthy as possible."

Empathy lies with the player, first and foremost.

If Carroll did suffer a significant injury in Game 1, the timing is cruel. The 6-foot-8 wing is playing the best basketball of his career, following his best regular season with a playoff run in which he’s led the team in scoring (17.1 points per game) while defending the opponent’s top wing. All of this was happening in a contract year. Whether it was with Atlanta or elsewhere, a healthy Carroll will likely draw strong free-agent interest this offseason, trading one of the league’s ultra-bargain contracts for a deserved payday.

Twice waived and D-League certified, Carroll is, at most, 13 games removed from cashing in on eight seasons’ worth of diligent work and development. If healthy.

Losing Carroll would create a twofold problem for the Hawks as a team.

First, Carroll was the go-to defensive option for LeBron James. Already facing an uphill battle in a series against the four-time MVP, Carroll’s absence would force Budenholzer’s hand. This is not a position of depth for Atlanta. Reserve wing Thabo Sefolosha is out for the season after breaking his leg while being arrested in New York. Carroll was tabbed for the lion’s share of defensive possessions against LeBron. Though the Cavs star found a rhythm in Game 1 (31 points), no other Hawks defender makes life more miserable for him.

As Carroll was being helped off the court, James broke away from his team’s huddle and walked over to pay his respects, patting the player he was barking back and forth with minutes earlier on the shoulder for encouragement.

"At the end of the day, we’re all a brotherhood. The NBA is a brotherhood. You don’t want to see anyone get injured during combat," said James, who also logged eight rebounds and six assists in the win. "So that’s going through my mind. Obviously I love to compete versus anybody that loves to compete as well. He’s one of those guys that’s competing throughout the night and throughout the postseason. I’m not sure the severity of the injury right now, but I hope he has a recovery, whatever it is. You just don’t anybody to get hurt like that."

Budenholzer pointed to Bazemore as the primary replacement if Carroll is inactive, but not having your top two wing defenders against arguably the best wing on the planet would, obviously, cause a few issues.

However, late in the fourth quarter with Carroll already in the locker room, it was big man Paul Millsap taking on the responsibility of defending James. The Hawks’ All-Star did well, although his assignment on James creates some interesting scenarios if the Cavaliers leave their own bigs, Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson, in to cause problems on the interior.

Carroll’s injury could also disrupt consistency.

This starting five has carried Atlanta to historic heights. Practically every other lineup combination has been outplayed this postseason. If that goes away, what are the Hawks’ chances moving forward?

This could all amount to unnecessary panic. The Hawks are going with knee sprain until further notice despite the fact that, as Korver pointed out, it certainly didn’t look good. Atlanta needs Carroll. Point guard Jeff Teague called him the team’s "glue guy." The lone Hawks starter to fall short of an All-Star bid, it’s difficult envisioning the franchise making it this far without him.

"That’s my guy. To see that, to see him go down, especially in a crucial moment like this, it hurts. That’s one of our brothers. You hate to see one of them go down," Millsap said. "But DeMarre’s tough, he’s a tough guy. He’s been working hard all his life. He’ll fight back."

Consider the names: Kevin Love, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Pau Gasol, Mike Conley. The NBA postseason has been marred by significant injuries forcing players to miss pivotal games, but, given the circumstances, none would be crueler than receiving bad news on Carroll’s Thursday MRI.