ATLANTA – When Ivan Johnson is banging around in the lane and staring down opponents, the Atlanta Hawks are a different team.
They hope the bearded, bruising forward can keep it up in Game 4 of the playoffs against the Indiana Pacers.
While Al Horford was the star of Atlantas Game 3 rout, it was Johnson who set the physical tone the Hawks so desperately needed after losing the first two games in Indianapolis. He played more than 26 minutes off the bench, scoring seven points, grabbing seven rebounds and picking up five fouls in 90-69 blowout.
The thing that frustrates the opposition more than anything is the fact that this kid plays hard, coach Larry Drew said. He doesnt take possessions off. He will stand up to any challenge, whoever he has to defend. Hes a physical, rugged player. A lot of guys dont like playing against guys like that.
Johnson isnt exactly a kid, even though this is just his second year in the league. The 29-year-old has a notorious temper, which resulted in a lifetime ban from the South Korean league for flashing an obscene gesture during a playoff game, and it took a long time before any NBA team was willing to take a chance on him.
The Hawks are glad they did.
The unfortunate thing about Ivan is he has a little bit of a reputation, Drew said. If he can work at it hard enough, he can shake that. Hes just too skilled. A big guy, with his size, with his ability and his mobility, he frustrates a lot of people. He knows how to play. Hes got a good knack for the game.
Atlanta will try to even the best-of-seven series at two wins apiece tonight.
The Hawks hope to stick with the lineup that worked so well in their victory – 7-footer Johan Petro starting at center, with Horford moving to power forward and Josh Smith shifting down to small forward.
The bigger lineup allowed the Hawks to match up much better with the Pacers at both ends of the court. Guarded by Smith, Paul George was held to 16 points after averaging 25 in the first two games. Indianas 7-2 center, Roy Hibbert, managed just 8 points after scoring 15.5 per contest in Indiana.
The Pacers turned in a stunningly poor performance after playing so well on their home court, where they averaged 110 points and a 16-point margin of victory. They shot just 27 percent (22 of 81) and turned the ball over 22 times, leading to 24 Atlanta points.
We really just beat ourselves, George said. Weve got to play tougher and with more of an edge.
Indiana made four of its first six shots, missed 30 of their next 36 attempts, trailed 54-30 at halftime and matched the lowest-scoring first half in the franchises playoff history.
Shots werent falling, but we allowed those shots not to fall, George said. We werent aggressive. We werent taking up our own air space. They were making us catch the ball where they wanted. We really werent fighting for spots.
The Pacers know theyll have to contend with Johnson if they want to regain control of the series.
Hes a great energy guy, a guy that just constantly battles, George said. Hes an emotional player.
The whole team feeds off his energy and his motor, he said.