ATLANTA —This 2014-15 NBA season has been defined by so much greatness: Steph Curry's wonderful, joyful MVP season. James Harden's marked improvement. Anthony Davis' scary-good emergence. Jimmy Butler's unforeseen growth. Russell Westbrook's triple-double spree. John Wall, Klay Thompson, Blake Griffin, Draymond Green, Kawhi Leonard. The list is longer, too, as a new generation of stars finds its place in the league.
But as much as that has been the case, injuries all season long – and now in particular during the playoffs – have dimmed the tone of fantastic performances.
The latest: Atlanta Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll who sustained a sprained left knee with 4:59 remaining left in the fourth quarter of Cleveland's 97-89 victory over Atlanta Wednesday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Game 2 is Friday in Atlanta, and Carroll, who left Philips Arena on crutches, is expected to undergo an MRI on Thursday to determine the extent of his injury.
If he misses any time, Atlanta's chances of advancing to the NBA Finals decrease. Carroll is the Hawks' leading scorer in the playoffs and he is the team's best perimeter defender. He has morphed into a two-way player who is vital to Atlanta's success.
"He's such a great teammate. Everybody's just concerned for DeMarre, and I'm hoping that he's healthy and ready to help us as soon as possible," Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "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."
Think about just these injuries in the playoffs: Kevin Love is out for the season with a shoulder injury); Wall missed a portion of the Hawks series with five non-displaced fractures in his left hand; Chris Paul missed games against Houston with a bad hamstring; Mike Conley needed facial fracture surgery; Kyrie Irving is obviously hampered by a strained right foot and tendinitis in his left knee; Pau Gasol missed two games against the Cavaliers with a hamstring injury; Dallas Chandler Parsons couldn't get through the playoffs.
That's just the playoffs and doesn't include regular-season injuries or ailments to Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Westbrook, Chris Bosh, Kobe Bryant, Wesley Matthews, Patrick Beverley, Donatas Motiejunas and Thabo Sefolosha who sustained a broken fibula and ligament damage in an altercation with New York police.
The Cavs are without Love, Anderson Varejao and a limited Irving, who played just 27 minutes in Game 1 – 3:05 in the fourth quarter and wasn't on the floor in the final 8:39.
"This is the moment he's been waiting for," LeBron James said. "This is the biggest stage. Physically, he's not capable of doing what we all know he's capable of doing. … . For me, that's my role at that point, to let him know when he's on the floor, no matter what he's going through, we need him to be aggressive, as aggressive as he can be with the injury, and not worry about things that he cannot control; only worry about the things that he can control."
And now the Hawks could be without Carroll. For comparison, Houston center Dwight Howard, who also has a sprained knee, is listed as questionable for Thursday's Game 2 against Golden State.
"Somebody has to step up," Hawks guard Jeff Teague said. "DeMarre's been our glue guy all year, been playing well in the playoffs, been our best player in the past couple of series. Hopefully, he can get back healthy soon, but one of the guys in there has to step up."
Budenholzer said reserve Kent Bazemore would likely receive more playing time if Carroll had to sit out.
We'll see what we learn tomorrow and figure out what gives us our best chance," Budenholzer said.
The results of Carroll's MRI loom large. Even with Carroll on the floor, Atlanta had trouble defending James, who was intent on posting up and using his size advantage. James took just one three-point attempt and all but eight of his 26 attempts were in the paint. He finished with a game-high 31 points and also had eight rebounds and six assists. He now has 52 playoff games with at least 30 points, five assists and five rebounds – more than any other player in NBA history.
Even before Carroll left Game 1 with the injury, Cleveland was on its way to a road win and a quick steal of home-court advantage in the series opener.
The Cavs tightened their defense in the second half, shutting down Atlanta's three-point shooting and Teague's penetration, and J.R. Smith did what J.R. Smith does best: score ruthlessly.
Smith had a playoff career-high 28 points, making 10-for-16 shots, including 8-for-12 three-pointers. During a 22-4 Cavs run stretching from the third quarter to fourth quarter, Smith had 17 of those points – 15 coming on three-pointers.
"Once I start shooting, whether I make or miss, everybody tells me to keep shooting," Smith said.
He even had a line that cracked up James.
"It's kind of hard hitting the shots I was hitting to try and pass the ball, but you've got to figure out a way," Smith said.
His eight three-pointers is the most for a Cavs player in the playoffs, and he also had eight rebounds, prompting Cavs coach David Blatt to say, "I'd love to know when the last time a guy made guy made eight threes and got eight rebounds."
Since 1985, it's only happened three other times in the playoffs, according to Klay Thompson in 2013, Jason Richardson in 2010 and Gary Payton in 1997. Love and Harden were the only two players to do it during the 2014-15 regular season.
"When he gets hot, he gets smoking hot. He was terrific," Blatt said. "Probably overlooked in his great shooting performance was the fact that he defended as well as he did and he got eight rebounds."
So now, the Hawks have work to do with or without Carroll. He was driving for a layup when he planted his left foot and the leg didn't give. He went down in obvious pain.
As Hawks players and training staff helped Carroll off the court, James walked over and tapped him on the head.
"At the end of the day, we're all a brotherhood," James said. "NBA is a brotherhood, and you never want anyone to get injured, even in combat. So that's what went through my mind. Obviously, I love competing versus anybody who loves to compete as well. He's one of those guys that was competing throughout the night, 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 want anybody to get hurt like that."
That brotherhood has been special – and injured – this season.