The Indiana Pacers opened up a commanding 2-0 series lead at home, winning Games 1 and 2 by an average of 16 points.
The outlook was grim to say the least for the Atlanta Hawks as they returned home, but they soared in Game 3. Coach Larry Drew played the matchups and went big in Saturday's victory. The ineffective Kyle Korver came off the bench as the Hawks started backup center Johan Petro.
And Petro got more good news on Sunday.
Congratulations to him and his wife, although Hawks fans everywhere are praying for a speedy labor.
In Game 3. Atlanta jumped out to a 54-30 lead at halftime and coasted to a 21-point win. Their big lineup dominated, with Al Horford beasting for 26 points, 16 rebounds, two steals and two blocks. Josh Smith shifted to the 3, scoring 14 points with six boards, plus a team-high six dimes and three steals.
The Hawks will enjoy a feast of confidence from Game 3 as they seek to even up the series on Monday night. As the adage dictates, the series doesn't change until someone loses a home game.
Time: Monday, April 29, 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Philips Arena, Atlanta, GA
Series Record: 2-1 Pacers
TV: NBA TV
Game 4 Key Storyline: Outpacing the Pacers
The Hawks played superb defense in Game 3, limiting Indy to a paltry 27 percent shooting, including 4-of-25 from beyond the arc. Atlanta also forced the Pacers into 22 turnovers while committing just 14 themselves. As a team, they pilfered 11 steals.
Horford, Smith and Petro helped Atlanta control the scoring in the paint, outscoring Indiana by 20 points. They also kept the rebounding margin close, which was an issue in Game 1.
Ivan Johnson was a difference maker off the bench. He only scored seven points, but he set the tone for the game with his tenacious physical presence.
Ivan the Terrible snatched seven rebounds (three offensive) to go with two steals, a block and several hard fouls. He finished with a team-high plus-21 floor rating.
Anthony Tolliver and Kyle Korver also played effectively off the bench.
After coach Larry Drew said his team was "physically manhandled" by the Pacers in Game 1, they finally responded in their first home game (per AP, via Fox Sports). If the Hawks frontcourt can excel like they did on Saturday, this series will head back to Indianapolis tied at two games apiece.
Series Star So Far
I would like to give this distinction to Al Horford, who is one of the more underrated players in the league, but Indiana's Paul George has been even better.
George is averaging 22 points, 9.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game in the series. He's also notched five steals and three blocks. Another key factor has been his aggressive mentality, as he's shooting 11 free throws per game.
Granted, his triple-double in Game 1 came on a woeful 3-of-13 shooting, he's shot 15-of-32 since then.
Projected Starting Lineups
Hawks: Jeff Teague, PG; Devin Harris, SG; Josh Smith, SF; Johan Petro, PF; Al Horford, C
Pacers: George Hill, PG; Lance Stephenson, SG; Paul George, SF; David West, PF; Roy Hibbert, C
Hawks Injury Report (per CBSSports.com)
Zaza Pachulia (Achilles), out for season; Lou Williams (knee), out for season
Pacers Injury Report
Danny Granger (knee), out for season
Hawks Will Win If...
They continue to dominate the paint.
In Saturday's 21-point victory, the Hawks outscored Indy 50-30 in the painted area. The combo of Horford and Petro proved potent, and Josh Smith played well after being slowed by an ankle injury in Game 2.
If Petro is not with the team in Game 4 due to the birth of his child, it could severely impact the Hawks' style of play. It would likely push Korver back into the starting lineup, although they could go with Johnson instead.
Though Atlanta's starting guards, Jeff Teague and Devin Harris, shot just 6-of-36 from the field in Game 3, their frontcourt players racked up a total of 69 points.
They must keep up that intensity if they want to even the series, as Indiana is not accustomed to being outmuscled.
Pacers Will Win If...
They don't shoot like a CYO team.
After shooting 46 percent through the first two games, Indiana stunk up Philips Arena in Game 3.
Indy's starting backcourt of Hill and Stephenson combined to shoot 2-of-15 from the field. The Pacers bench made just six of their 33 shots, even though Indy was only outscored by three points in the second half—which is typically when a coach would institute so-called garbage time.
Coach Frank Vogel should pare his rotation down, as in Game 1 when nine players saw more than a minute of court time. Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin and Gerald Green are solid bench contributors, but Vogel must lean on his hard-nosed starting five.
Figuring out the preferred shot selection for Hill and Stephenson will be a priority in preparing for Game 4.
Game 4 does not project to be a blowout like Saturday's win for Atlanta. The Pacers will look at film and make adjustments for the Hawks beefed up starting five, so don't expect to see that gulf of points in the paint between the teams.
Atlanta's morale will be sky high for Monday's tilt, but it will be interesting to see if they flag without a comfortable lead in the early going.
While the Hawks defense deserves tremendous praise for their effort in Game 3, there's no way the Pacers will shoot 27 percent again.
The Hawks would make for great dark-horse candidates if Williams and Pachulia were healthy, but without them, they don't have enough weapons to battle out the series.
The Pacers are a gritty team with excellent scorers in their own frontcourt to counter Atlanta's revamped starting five. Indy will crush the Hawks' aspirations and capture the 3-1 series lead.
Prediction: Pacers 91, Hawks 86