ATLANTA — The Atlanta Hawks were feeling a lot better about themselves Tuesday. There were plenty of smiles and good-natured ribbing, especially during a 3-point contest between Jeff Teague and Josh Smith to close out practice.
Once Teague had finished off his teammate, it was time to head to the airport.
Back to reality.
While the Hawks have plenty of momentum — their playoff series with the Pacers is all even at two games apiece after a pair of wins on their home court — the weight of history is heavy on this franchise heading into Game 5 at Indianapolis on Wednesday night.
Since moving to Atlanta in 1968, the Hawks are a dismal 21-84 in postseason road games. Not surprising, really, that they've won only two series in all those years without having a home-court edge. More troubling, over the past two decades they've managed to win a measly two road games — out of 11 tries — when a best-of-seven series reaches this stage or later.
Sure, all teams tend to play better at home than on the road.
But the emotionally fragile Hawks are the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde in the playoffs.
"I'm pleased with how we came home, how we handled our business," coach Larry Drew said. "Now we need to go to Indiana and do the same."
Easy to say. A lot tougher to accomplish.
Indiana dominated the Hawks in the first two games, averaging 110 points and a 16-point margin of victory. Clearly, the Pacers are counting on the home court to help them regain control of the series. While they've lost 13 consecutive games in Atlanta, a streak that dates to 2006, they merely have to keep winning at home to advance to the second round.
"That's a great Atlanta team over there," Pacers guard George Hill said. "We knew it was going to be a tough series. We knew they weren't going to lay down. But we know we have two more games at home in this series if necessary."
The Hawks, on the other hand, know they've got to steal at least one win at Indy.
"When you play on the road, there's a certain mentality you've got to have," Drew said. "That's something we talk about as a team. It's not just playing on the road, but learning how to play on the road. It's not easy. It's not just a matter of going out there and doing everything you do at home. There's a certainly style you do have to play. You are who you are, but there's those things you have to do a little bit differently."
Actually, the Hawks will have a major difference on this trip to the heartland.
After losing Game 2, Drew went to a bigger lineup, inserting 7-footer Johan Petro at center and bringing Kyle Korver off the bench. Petro isn't much of an offensive threat but he's done a good job defending 7-2 Roy Hibbert, whose scoring has dipped from 15.5 points in the first two games to 11.0 over the last two.
More important, by inserting Petro at center, the Hawks were able to move Al Horford to power forward and Josh Smith to small forward. Horford is much more effective matched against David West, while Smith has the size and athleticism to give fits to Indiana star Paul George at both ends of the court.
George led the Pacers with 21 points in Game 4, but was largely ineffective through the first three quarters. Smith, meanwhile, set a career playoff high with 29 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and finished off a brilliant all-around performance with four assists, three steals and a block.
The enigmatic Smith has certainly risen to the challenge of going head-to-head with Indiana's best player.
"He's one of the up-and-coming young players in this league," Smith said. "I like to be able to guard somebody who has a complex game like him. I get up for it. He's a catalyst for that team at both ends of the floor. I'm just trying to match his intensity."
Now, it's up to George to step up his game against Smith.
"He's getting the boards, he's shooting 3s, and he's making shots," the Indiana forward said. "He's being active and getting to the free-throw line. He's just playing with a lot more energy."
But, like Hill, George feels a lot more comfortable knowing the next game is at Indy.
"We know we play well at home," he said. "The road is somewhere we're still learning to get wins and learning to play together. But at home, we're very comfortable."
The Hawks are feeling a lot more encouraged with their bigger lineup, so much so that Drew conceded he should've made the switch before Game 2 rather than waiting until Atlanta came home. Another benefit was apparent in Monday's win, when Korver made five 3s off the bench and finished with 19 points, taking advantage of an Indiana defense that kept sagging down low trying to defend Smith and Horford (who had 18 points).
"Certainly making that adjustment has had an effect on both teams," Drew said. "Josh has done a superb job guarding Paul George. You have to make him work. Plus, the big guys have done a solid job with their bigs as well — Al on West, Petro doing a good job with Hibbert. The big lineup has certainly been good to us. Hopefully that will continue."
If it does, the Hawks just might be able to write some new history.
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