Atlanta Hawks Smith reacts as the Indiana Pacers West walks across the court in their first-round Eastern Conference playoff NBA basketball game in Atlanta

Hawks run past ice cold Pacers to even series 2-2

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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.

Way too early look: Who could make up USA’s 2020 Tokyo Olympic basketball team?

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 21:  Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan and Kyle Lowry #7 of United States stand on the podium after defeating Serbia in the Men's Gold medal game on Day 16 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 21, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Let’s start with the obvious: This is an exercise in futility. There is no way to predict accurately what the 2020 USA men’s basketball team headed to the Tokyo Olympics will look like. There will be injuries that sideline guys. There will be contract situations where key guys decide it’s in their best interest to sit out. Plus, there could be a guy just now entering his junior year of high school who we don’t know well yet but in four years will be a clear choice for the team.

Now that we’ve gotten through the tedious disclaimer, let’s have fun:

What will the 2020 USA Basketball team look like?

First, it will have a bit of a business attitude — Gregg Popovich is coaching now. Not that Mike Krzyzewski ran a college party Team USA, far from it, but with Popovich’s demeanor and the scare put into the 2016 team (and some improving world powers, such as Canada), expect the USA to be a little more focused next time around.

For the roster, who from the 2016 gold medal team in Rio returns for more gold? At the top of the list: A 31-year-old Kevin Durant will be back for one more run (and to climb on top of the USA Olympic scoring list). He will be the unquestioned team leader. The alpha. It will be his team.

After that? Young stars who want one more go at it such as Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, and Klay Thompson will seriously consider a return. Maybe Jimmy Butler. Those guys will have a leg up having Olympic experience and a commitment to the program.

After that, some big names that passed on Rio are going to suit up in Japan. There will be far less defection of top talent this time around — the fears around Brazil will be gone, and NBA players wanting to sell more shoes in Asia will be eager to sign up. I expect you will see Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, and maybe James Harden decide they are in for the next round. LeBron James said he felt left out and may consider a return, but he will be 35 years old with 17 NBA seasons on his body by that point, does he want to put his body through an international curtain call? Probably not.

Rounding out the roster, expect a few guys from this year’s USA Select Team — the team the Olympic squad practiced against in Las Vegas at the start of camp — to make the leap up (as Kyrie Irving and others did this year).

Who? That’s the hardest thing to predict, it depends on development. Guys to watch include Victor Olidipo, Justise Winslow, Devin Booker, Brandon Ingram, and Jabari Parker — some of them will be ready to make the leap.

One clue to the 2020 roster: Players that you see in China for the 2019 FIBA World Cup will be more likely to make the 2020 team. (Yes, the World Championships are now the year before the Olympics, welcome to more of FIBA’s wisdom, as is the fact the Cup qualifiers fall during the NBA/Euroleague seasons.) Guys from the select team now that head to China in three years and perform well in that setting will likely have the USA across their chest in Japan.

Whatever team we send will have the most talent in those games. The question is will that be enough?

Check out the Cleveland Cavaliers Top 10 plays from last season

AUBURN HILLS, MI - APRIL 24: Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers prepare for tip off against the Detroit Pistons in game four of the NBA Eastern Conference quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Palace of Auburn Hills on April 24, 2016 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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With athletes such as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving on the team, you know the Cleveland Cavaliers Top 10 plays of last season were going to have some special moments.

Yes, the block by LeBron and the stepback three by Irving that sealed the first Cleveland title in 52 years are on top of the list.

But there are some other ridiculous Irving handles and even a Timofey Mozgov dunk in there (a $64 million dunk, apparently).

Watch Spurs’ Dejounte Murray throw off-the-backboard alley-oop to himself in pickup game

Washington guard Dejounte Murray, center, dribbles the ball past Mount St. Mary's center Taylor Danaher (50) as Washington forward Marquese Chriss, right, watches duirng the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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Just a suggestion for rookie Dejounte Murray: Don’t do this in front of Gregg Popovich. You may not like his reaction.

That said, the Spurs needed to get more athletic this off-season — landing Pau Gasol certainly didn’t help that cause — so enter first-round pick Murray, who pulled this off in a recent pickup game.

Murray is going to be brought along slowly in a backcourt where Tony Parker and Patty Mills will be splitting time at the point. Murray is more of a combo guard and is going to have to shoot a lot better than he did in college (28.8 percent from three) to get some run. But this is a situation where the Spurs can groom him, bring him along slowly, and see if they have another draft steal.

He’s certainly got the athleticism.

Corey Brewer: “James (Harden) is going to play defense this year”

HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 18:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets walks across the court during their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Toyota Center on March 18, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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James Harden‘s defense is not as bad as its reputation.

Well, at least it wasn’t two seasons ago — his near MVP season he was in good enough shape that he could put in a respectable effort on that end and still handle his massive offensive load. There were still some mental lapses, but his focus was better and his improvement lifted the team defense. Last season, he regressed back to youtube “highlight” defense Harden — his conditioning was not where it needed to be, he didn’t expend as much effort on that end, and it showed.

Harden got a massive contract extension this summer, and Dwight Howard is Atlanta’s problem — now Harden has to lead the Rockets. By example. Corey Brewer told ESPN you’re going to see that on defense.

“I think this year he’s going to play better defense, We’re going to let the past be in the past. It’s the future of the Rockets, man. James is going to play defense this year.”

We’re all Missourians on this one: Show me.

Remember that the Rockets will be out and running — Mike D’Antoni is the coach now, and Daryl Morey is going to get the up tempo ball he wants (which Kevin McHale had them doing, but Harden didn’t like him so…). D’Antoni’s teams in Phoenix played better defense than their reputation — points per possession they were middle of the pack — but that has never been his focus.

Will Harden be able to run like he needs to on offense and still defend at a reasonable level?

If he can, it’s a big step toward the Rockets being a dangerous team in the West because if he does it others will follow. Otherwise, every Rockets game will be a shootout, which is entertaining but not going to get a team deep into the playoffs.