SI.com will periodically panel its basketball experts during the 2015 NBA playoffs and ask them a pressing question about the league. Today's topic, which Atlanta Hawks player needs to step up most with DeMarre Carroll hurt.
The Hawks forward appeared to suffer a gruesome knee injury in Game 1, but an MRI revealed no structural damage and team doctors have declared him a game-time decision for Game 2 with a knee sprain. Carroll has had a career year for Atlanta and is averaging a team-best 16.2 points per game during the postseason. He also represents the Hawks' best defensive answer for LeBron James in the Eastern Conference finals. Atlanta's Finals hopes could very well hinge on his availability for the rest of the series.
Which Hawks player needs to step up most with DeMarre Carroll hurt?
Ben Golliver: Al Horford
Even before Carroll went down, LeBron James was getting pretty much anywhere he wanted to go in Game 1. James' jumper has been off all playoffs, but he almost seemed to be toying with the Hawks at times, effortlessly getting into the heart of their defense and shooting 10-for-18 in the paint. It doesn't really matter: neither Carroll, Paul Millsap, or Kent Bazemore is equipped to defend James one-on-one. That's where Al Horford comes in: Atlanta's All-Star center needs to better lead the effort to show James extra bodies and close down the space he has to work with when the four-time MVP goes inside. James simply had to work harder for his points in the second round against the Bulls when he was dealing with Jimmy Butler's tight marking and help from the likes of Joakim Noah. This will be a quick series if he is able to operate with such impunity.
Chris Mannix: Kyle Korver
And it's not even close. Korver's Houdini-like disappearing act in this playoffs has crippled Atlanta's offense. During the regular season, Korver was a one-man lead sweller; in the playoffs, he has been little more than a decoy. With Korver firing, interior players Al Horford and Paul Millsap have more room to operate inside and paint penetrating guards Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder have lanes to drive through. With Carroll, Atlanta needed Korver to get going. Without him, the Hawks badly need Korver to get going.
Lee Jenkins: Mike Scott
Mike Scott is known as a bench scorer, not a lockdown defender, and he hasn’t played since Game 3 of the second round. But the Hawks, desperate without Thabo Sefolosha and possibly Carroll, need bodies to throw at LeBron James. Kent Bazemore may be too small, Paul Millsap too slow. At 6’8”, 237 pounds, Scott looks the part, and he has devoted more attention to defense this season. Scott has been supplanted in the rotation lately by Mike Muscala, a superior stopper, but Muscala is 6’11”. Scott averaged 7.8 points this season in 16.5 minutes. Mike Budenholzer may have to dust him off.
Michael Rosenberg: Kyle Korver
This is true even if Carroll plays. All of Korver's percentages are down in the playoffs: field goal (from 48.7 to 39.3), three-point (from 49.2 to 35.6) and even free-throw (from 89.8 to 78.6). You could possibly blame playoff defenses for the first two, but not for the latter. Korver's shooting was essential to the Hawks' outstanding regular season. He was better in Game 1 against the Cavs, making three of five shots, but the Hawks need him to return to his regular-season self in order to win the series.
Matt Dollinger: Paul Millsap
You couldn't help but feel bad for Millsap in the final minutes of Game 1 as he valiantly attempted to stay in front of LeBron James on the perimeter. Power forwards aren't meant to guard players 40 feet away from the basket (unless they're LeBron James), but there was Millsap on an island all by himself, picking up James as soon as he crossed halfcourt and trying to body the Cavaliers star. He even tried to pick LeBron's pocket on several occasions, an attempt so bold it brought a smile to his James' face. Millsap isn't going to transform into a 6'8" version of Patrick Beverley overnight, but he still might represent Atlanta's best chance of slowing down James. The Hawks don't have a natural replacement for Carroll (one of the few players in the entire league capable of guarding LeBron) and Millsap will likely be tasked with matching up with the four-time MVP for critical stretches. If the Hawks are smart, they'll allow LeBron to try and beat them on the perimeter and focus on stopping him from getting to the rim.
DeAntae Prince: Al Horford
LeBron James has faced tough defense at every stage of the postseason so far, and while the Cavaliers have managed to advance twice, the Celtics and Bulls each had some success against the best player on the planet. They dedicated long, tough defenders to shadow James and make life difficult for him. Jae Crowder picked up the task for Boston, while Chicago used all-world defender Jimmy Butler.
Carroll must play a similar role or the Hawks will be in trouble. If he is unfit to do so, the Hawks need to lean on frontcourt star and rim protector Al Horford to clean up others’ mistakes against James. The Cavaliers’ frontcourt is thin, so Horford can play a roamer role and meet James in the paint. James hasn’t shot the ball as efficiently as he’d like, a fact that makes him more likely to attack the rim. When he does, Horford should be waiting at the basket to stop him.
GALLERY: Sports Illustrated's best NBA portraits over the years