The Indiana Pacers were sure they could win at least one game in Atlanta.
So much for that plan.
This playoff series is all tied heading back to the heartland.
Josh Smith scored a career playoff-best 29 points as the Hawks built a 17-point lead at halftime, then withstood an Indiana comeback to even the series with a 102-91 victory over the Pacers in Game 4 on Monday night.
“This is going to be one heck of a series right now,” Indiana center Roy Hibbert said. “I thought we’d be able to at least split down here.”
The Hawks beat Indiana for the 13th straight time at Philips Arena, a streak that dates to 2006. But the Pacers can take solace with not having to win in Atlanta, as long as they take care of business on their home court.
Tied at two wins apiece, the teams return to Indianapolis for Game 5 on Wednesday night.
“That’s a great Atlanta team over there,” George Hill said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy series. We knew they weren’t going to lay down. It’s always tough for us to play here. It’s good we have two more games on our home court if necessary.”
Then again, Indiana must be wondering how the series got to this point after the Pacers dominated the first two games in their building, averaging 110 points and a 16-point margin of victory.
After struggling much of the second half, the enigmatic Smith made every big play down the stretch. He swished a rare 3-pointer, came up with an offensive rebound to set up a 3 by Kyle Korver, and finished off a fast break with a right-handed dunk. Plus, he did another stout defensive job on Indiana star Paul George, who had to work for every one of his 21 points.
“When he plays like that,” Hawks guard Devin Harris said of Smith, “we’re a very good team.”
With George scoring 18 in the second half, many on very difficult shots, the Pacers made a game of it. But they couldn’t come all the way back from a 57-40 deficit at the break. Indiana got as close as four in the third quarter and was within five numerous times in the final 10 minutes. But the Pacers expended so much energy getting back in the game they just didn’t have enough to complete the comeback.
Korver added 19 points off the bench, most of them coming on his specialty: the 3-pointer. He knocked down five from outside the arc, including the biggest one with 2:33 remaining after Al Horford threw up a wild shot that missed. Smith snatched one of his 11 rebounds and spotted Korver lurking all alone on the outside.
“Energy and effort,” Smith said. “If we play with those two words and play together — I take that back, make it three words — we’re a pretty good basketball team.”
Horford chipped in with 18 points, and Anthony Tolliver made all three of his shots from beyond the 3-point line, providing a big boost every time the Hawks needed one.
Indiana was better offensively but still struggled to make shots, finishing at 38 percent on a 32-of-84 performance. George came alive after halftime, connecting three times from beyond the stripe, while every other starter was in double figures.
It wasn’t enough.
The Hawks turned the momentum in the series with a 90-69 blowout in Game 3. They did enough good things in the first half and the closing minutes Monday to get the series back where it started returning to Indy, where they must win at least one game to advance.
“We contested pretty much every shot they took,” Smith said. “That’s what it’s going to take.”
The Pacers played with much more effort than they did Saturday, but it didn’t matter in the second quarter. Not with the Hawks gunning away from the outside — they went 7-of-8 from 3-point range in the period — and running the court with so much abandon that coach Larry Drew had to call a 20-second timeout late in the first half just to allow his players to catch their breath.
Atlanta appeared on the way to a second straight blowout. Not so fast.
Indiana turned up the defensive pressure, while the Hawks began walking the ball up the court and getting sloppy. The Pacers ripped off a 15-1 spurt that nearly wiped out an 18-point deficit, holding Atlanta without a field goal for a good chunk of the third quarter. After Horford’s dunk with 10:05 left in the period, the Hawks didn’t make another basket until Devin Harris’ nifty dash from one end of the court to the other for a layup with 1:34 remaining.
“That was a real gutsy performance by our team,” Drew said.
Atlanta was able to stick with its big lineup after 7-foot center Johan Petro dashed back from Miami on a private jet sent by the team owners after witnessing the birth of his first child. Jacob Petro was born about 2 p.m., and his father hustled off to the airport, making it to Phillips Arena about two hours before tipoff.
If the birth had taken longer, Petro was planning to stay in south Florida. Instead, he played 22 minutes with hardly any sleep the past two days, contributing four points and eight rebounds.
Atlanta dealt with an old bugaboo in the second half: free-throw shooting. At one point, the Hawks had made just 8 of 18 before Horford knocked down five of six to make the percentage look a little more respectable. Still, they finished 25-of-38 at the line, squandering a chance to put the Pacers away earlier.
The Indiana Pacers were sure they could win at least one game in Atlanta.
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