J.R. Smith knocked down a tough 3-pointer, then another. Turning toward the fans, their heckling transformed to groans, he blew off his right index finger and motioned toward his side, like he was holstering his pistol.
Yep, Smith was that hot.
BOX SCORE: CAVALIERS 97, HAWKS 89
While LeBron James led Cleveland with 31 points, it was Smith who ignited the Cavaliers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. He made eight 3-pointers and scored 28 points in a 97-89 victory over the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night.
“When he gets hot,” Cleveland coach David Blatt marveled, “he gets smoking hot.”
Intent on bringing Cleveland its first NBA title, James sealed the victory with a soaring dunk in the final minute.
For the Hawks, it was the second straight series in which they’ve lost the opening game at home. Cleveland will look to take command of the series in Game 2 Friday night.
Making matters worse for Atlanta, DeMarre Carroll went down with a knee injury driving to the basket with 4:59 remaining. He was helped to the locker room, not putting any weight on his left leg, and will undergo an MRI on Thursday to determine the seriousness.
Besides being the main defender on James, Carroll had been the Hawks’ leading scorer in the playoffs. He was averaging more than 17 points coming into Atlanta’s first conference final.
“DeMarre is a complete player,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He has a big impact at both ends of the court.”
Jeff Teague led Atlanta with 27 points. But Atlanta didn’t produce its usual balanced scoring, as two starters — Kyle Korver and Carroll — failed to reach double figures.
With Smith doing most of the damage, Cleveland outscored the Hawks 22-4 over the final 5 minutes of the third quarter and the first 2 minutes of the fourth. During that span, he made five 3-pointers and another jumper from just inside the arc, as well as throwing up a lob that Tristan Thompson dunked.
Smith has been a huge addition for the Cavaliers since he was acquired in January as part of a three-team trade with New York and Oklahoma City. A player once known for his selfishness, he had learned to work with within the confines of a team led by James.
When the Cavaliers really needed Smith in Game 1, he seemed to make every shot.