Suddenly, the Indiana Pacers don’t look so in control of this series anymore.
The Pacers defense that got them to the No. 3 seed in the East and helped them race out to a 2-0 series lead went missing for long stretches on Monday night — especially their transition defense. And that allowed the Hawks to get some easy buckets on the break, and for Josh Smith to remind everyone what an impressive athlete he is for a big man.
Smith had 29 points (a career playoff high), made some key plays down the stretch and the Hawks beat the Pacers 102-91. That evens the series up at 2-2 with Game 5 Wednesday night back in Indiana.
Which is good news — the Pacers were a dramatically better team at home.
On the road in Atlanta they struggled to find any kind of offensive rhythm, although part of that is that once again Hawks coach Larry Drew went to his big lineup with Johan Petro at center, Al Horford at the four and Smith at the three (although in the fourth quarter Drew went back to his smaller lineup with Horford at the five and it worked).
Despite the size Indiana spent the first six minutes of the game making a point of establishing Roy Hibbert in the paint, and with that slowed-down style they were able to get back and set their defense. They were able to play their game, they were able to grind.
Then the Pacers just stopped — they settled for jump shots that they seemed to always miss, and the Hawks grabbed the boards and got out and ran. The Hawks are so much better and so much more entertaining when they get out and run, but they too often do not.
Atlanta ended the first quarter on an 8-0 run thanks to Indiana misses and the fast breaks and penetration they allowed. It was capped off by transition Devin Harris floater layup to end the quarter and Atlanta led 22-21 after one.
It didn’t end there, the Hawks extend that run to 16-1 run and eventually all the way to a 25-6 run as the Hawks knocked down 7-of-8 from three in the second quarter. Meanwhile the Pacers shot 7-of-21 in the second quarter (not that they were a whole lot better later, they shot just 38.1 percent for the game). Atlanta pulled away and it was 57-40 Hawks at the half.
Once again, Paul George had trouble getting going with Josh Smith guarding him, and he finished 6-of-16 shooting on the night (21 points).
The Pacers started to grind the lead down again in the second half and make it a game again for a couple reasons. One, they slowed the game down again. Second, both Harris (dehydration) and Horford (four fouls) were on the bench and the Hawks matchups went away. The Pacers went on 15-2 run and we had a game again as the Hawks shot 3-of-21 in the third quarter. It was a seven point game entering the fourth.
But the Pacers could get no closer than four all through the fourth quarter. It was 86-81 Hawks with 3:30 left when Smith hit a three (one where you could hear the crowd start to groan as he took it then go wild when it splashed through the net). Next Hawks possessions Horford drove across the lane but Hibbert did a good job on him, the shot missed but Smith got the offensive rebound, made a smart pass out top to Kyle Korver who drained another three. It was a nine point lead, and while the Pacers tried Smith slammed the door with a minute to go when he put away a dunk in transition off a George missed shot.
The Hawks had an offensive rating of 110 (points per 100 possessions) in this game — that is 7.7 points better than their season average and 13.4 points better than what the Pacers allowed on average this season. That is a couple games in a row the Hawks have broken the Pacers code.
Game 5 Wednesday will be interesting — can the Hawks keep up their defensive effort and get some easy buckets in transition on the road? Or do we see the Pacers from the first two games again?
We’ll see, but it likely comes down to that Josh Smith vs. Paul George battle.