Josh Smith went into beast mode. Al Horford had his best game of the series and Joe Johnson was doing what Joe Johnson does best -- draining shots from downtown. When the Atlanta Hawks play this style of basketball, it is not only fun to watch, but it is also lethal for the other team.
The Hawks are going to need a similar effort from their "big three" on Tuesday if they want to come back to Atlanta in position to close out the series.
Smith and the Hawks head back to the Windy City to take on Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup at the United Center (8 p.m. EDT, TNT, 97.9 FM).
Atlanta returned to ChiTown with a little bit of confidence and a bit of swagger after upsetting the Bulls 100-88 in Game 4 on their home court to level the series at 2-2.
The win assured the Hawks of another home game this season. It also marked the first time the Hawks have gone this far in the second round since Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird dueled in an epic seven-game series back in 1988.
Atlanta got it done in Game 4 by starting with that same "big" lineup that upset the Orlando Magic in the first round of the playoffs. The result was a much more physical Atlanta team that smacked Rose when he drove the lane and boxed out Joakim Noah on the offensive boards. Those minor adjustments allowed Atlanta to remain competitive in the game and pull away late, thanks in part to a 23 point, 16 rebound, eight assist performance by the enigmatic Smith.
The Hawks were in that one because they remained within themselves. Smith and Horford were effective in the paint. Johnson had his shot going from deep.
Atlanta coach Larry Drew has been coy as to whether he's going to stick with his "big" lineup in Game 5, although he hinted early Tuesday that he may stick with it. But do not expect the Bulls to sit back and not make the necessary adjustments. This series has turned into a bit of a chess match between Drew and NBA coach of the year Tom Thibodeau, both of whom have made slight tweaks to the game plan after each game.
For example, when Johnson and Jamal Crawford were effective in Game 1, Thibodeau went to the double-team. After Rose poured in 44 in Game 3, Drew started rotating a help defender to the NBA MVP on just about all of his touches.
Look for Chicago to try to close down the paint in this one and go back to more of the same where Johnson gets swarmed with a double-team every time he touches the ball.
As always, Atlanta's success will largely depend on the team's ability to run the iso-Joe offense, have Smith stay within his game and the jump shots fall. They also have to figure out a way to neutralize Chicago on the boards and pester Rose, who will most likely shoot much better than in his 12-for-32 performance in Game 4.
If Atlanta can do that, they may be able to shock the world and bring this series back home with a chance to clinch it in Game 6. (Much like this scribe predicted.) If not, it will be a long road to tow for Atlanta's basketball team, which would need to win a pair of games to clinch the series. Either way, the Hawks are playing with house cash. Not many expected them to make it this far.
Ah, playoff basketball. It doesn't get much more exciting than this.