Josh Smith, the much-maligned forward for the Atlanta Hawks, got his detractors off his back– for a while, anyway–with his performance in Game 4 of the first-round series against the Indiana Pacers.
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.
“You da one, Smoove,” teammate Dahntay Jones said as he walked by Smith’s locker. “You da one.”
The one, indeed. 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 many 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.
Tied at two wins apiece, the teams return to Indianapolis for Game 5 on Wednesday night.
“This is going to be one heck of a series right now,” Pacers center Roy Hibbert said. “I thought we’d be able to at least split down here.”
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.
But it was Smith who made sure the Hawks got the game they absolutely had to have before going back on the road.
“Just his energy,” Horford said. “When he plays with that level of energy, it makes such a difference. I’m not saying he doesn’t do it all the time, but when he’s so engaged and doing the little things, it makes a big difference to us.”
Indiana was better offensively than Game 3 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 beat Indiana for the 13th straight time at Phillips 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.
“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.
The Hawks turned the momentum with a 90-69 blowout in Game 3. They did enough good things in the first half and the closing minutes to get the series back where it started as they head back to the heartland.
“We contested pretty much every shot they took,” Smith said. “That’s what it’s going to take (to win at Indiana). “