What took so long?
The Hawks vaulted back into their first-round playoff series against the Pacers by starting a bigger lineup that resulted in convincing home victories in Games 3 and 4. The greatest of the many benefits of the move has been the matchup of Josh Smith on Paul George.
It has been a clear victory for the Hawks that has the best-of-seven series tied 2-2 and headed back to Indiana for Game 5 on Wednesday night.
Smith has stifled George on defense. The Pacers’ All-Star small forward averaged 25.0 points, 9.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists in Games 1 and 2. However, he averaged 18.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists in Games 3 and 4. He had only three points at halftime in Game 4 on Monday when the Hawks built what was an insurmountable lead.
He has not been the facilitator he was who made the Pacers’ offense so effective in the first two games. Smith also has prevented the Pacers from getting the ball to George in favorable places on the floor.
The lineup change also meant that George had to guard Smith. It’s another battle won by the Hawks. Smith has been able to post up George almost at will. When the Pacers tried to give George help, as they did in Game 4, it opened the Hawks’ outside game. The 11 3-pointers in Monday’s 102-91 win tied for the second-most in Hawks playoff history. They made 12 against Orlando on May 13, 1996.
“Yeah, I do wish,” coach Larry Drew on whether he should have made the change earlier in the series. “We’ve been aware what the big lineup has meant for us, and it certainly has had its good moments. It hasn’t always worked out that way. Certainly, in making that adjustment, it’s had an effect.”
In Monday’s victory, Smith scored a playoff career-high 29 points and a team-high 11 rebounds for his first double-double of the playoffs. He added four assists, a playoff career-high-tying three steals and one block. He passed Kevin Willis (50) for fourth on the Hawks’ all-time postseason games played list.
For the series, Smith leads the Hawks with 18.5 points per game and has averaged 7.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.5 steals.
“We’ve been more successful with that lineup from the beginning,” Smith said following Tuesday’s practice. “I think what picked it up was our energy, our intensity and our effort.
“(George is) a really good player. He’s an All-Star. He’s an up-and-coming young talent in the league. To be able to take on that challenge is always challenging, and I like to be able to guard someone who has a complex game like him. I get up for it.”
There is more statistical evidence of the stark contrast of the Hawks’ play since the lineup change. In Games 1 and 2, the lopsided Pacers victories at home, Smith had a combined plus/minus rating of minus-29. In Games 3 and 4, the one-sided Hawks wins, Smith had a combined plus-34.
“Josh has not done a good job; he’s done a superb job in defending Paul George,” Drew said. “Paul is still going to score because he’s that good, but the thing is you have to make him work. I think Josh is doing a good job with that.”
George said the energy level with which Smith played the past two games has been noticeable. Teammate Al Horford said the Hawks are a different team when Smith plays with the energy level he showed in the past two games.
Drew said, with a smile, that more than likely the Hawks will use the bigger starting lineup for Game 5.
The bigger lineup allows the Hawks to match size at the center position, with Johan Petro initially guarding Roy Hibbert in a battle of 7-footers. Horford has been very effective against David West, the power forward who was left shaking his head Monday night about his ineffectiveness in the series.
Additionally the Hawks are taking advantage of their speed and quickness at guard with a backcourt of Jeff Teague and Devin Harris. The lineup has opened the outside for Kyle Korver, who started the first two games of the series, but yielded his spot.
“When Josh is at the (small forward), he’s a load,” Korver said. “They’ve got double-teams coming, and they have to worry about him. It’s kind of opened me up a little bit. I think the lineup change was a pretty good thing for us.”