ATLANTA – The Indiana Pacers looked so good in the first two games of the playoffs.
They couldn't have looked much worse Saturday night.
The Atlanta Hawks raced to a 24-point lead by halftime and blew out the cold-shooting Pacers 90-69 in Game 3, narrowing Indiana's lead in the series to 2-1. Al Horford had 26 points and 16 rebounds to lead the home team.
Suddenly, it's a series.
Game 4 is Monday night in Atlanta, where the Hawks have won 12 straight over the Pacers dating to 2006.
"It was just one of those nights," Pacers star Paul George said. "Everything we did was uncharacteristic."
The Pacers manhandled the Hawks in two double-digit wins at Indianapolis, but the roles switched after the series headed south.
"We wanted to show them we're here to play," Atlanta guard Jeff Teague said. "We were not going to back down to them."
This one was over by halftime, the Hawks racing to a 54-30 lead that set a franchise record for fewest points allowed in the first half of a playoff game, and matching Indiana's worst effort in a postseason opening half.
The Hawks changed up their lineup — inserting 7-footer Johan Petro at center and bringing 3-point specialist Kyle Korver off the bench — after getting bounced around on the road. With more favorable matchups and a lot more energy, Atlanta suddenly looked like a team that can challenge the Pacers.
"We were ready to go," coach Larry Drew said. "Before the game, I went in the locker room to give my speech and it was quiet in there. That told me they were focused."
David West led the Pacers with 18 points. George, who averaged 25 points in the first two games, was held to 16 on 4-of-11 shooting.
Indiana connected on a dismal 27 percent (22 of 81) from the field. Taking Smith and George out of the mix, they were 11 of 56.
"We're a very young team," coach Frank Vogel said. "There's going to be some growing pains. We're going to feel this, experience this, and get better from it."
Josh Smith added 14 points for the Hawks, and Teague had 13. But that's only part of the story. Smith was able to take George out of his comfort zone, while Teague put the clamps on George Hill, who had surprisingly averaged 20 points in the first two games. The Pacers guard was held to three on 1-of-8 shooting.
"They came out with a lot of energy, put us on our heels early, and the rest is history," Hill said. "We turned the ball over a lot and we weren't getting to the places that we want to get to on offensive end."
Drew started the little-used Petro at center in hopes of cutting into the Pacers' size advantage, a move that had a ripple effect on Horford and Smith, providing more favorable defensive matchups all along the front line. Horford was able to shift to power forward, while Smith moved over to small forward.
But, after getting manhandled in the first two games at Indianapolis, the Hawks' turnaround wasn't really propelled by a great strategic move.
Petro played only 14 minutes. Korver, who started the first two games, still got the bulk of the playing time with 29 minutes. Instead, this was more about the Hawks coming out with a lot more passion, the very things Drew had been preaching since the start of the series.
"We were ready," Smith said.
After falling behind 8-1 in the opening minutes and calling a quick timeout, Atlanta dominated the rest of the opening half with a display that had the crowd on its feet time and time again, while the Pacers stood around in a state of shock, looking nothing like the team that averaged 110 points and a 16-point margin of victory on its home court. They made four of their first six shots — then missed 30 of their next 36 before halftime, many of them the forced, ugly efforts of a team that turned increasingly desperate as the Hawks seemed to get to every loose ball just a little quicker.
Roy Hibbert missed all four of his shots in the first half. The backcourt duo of Hill and Lance Stephenson each went 1 of 6. The Atlanta defense, which was largely nonexistent in the first two games, contested every shot this time. Not only did Petro bring a more physical presence, Ivan Johnson came off the bench to provide plenty of bruising, quality minutes — not to mention some fierce staredowns when Indiana did manage a rare basket.
But nothing was more telling that when the 6-foot-10 Horford led a lumbering fast break in the second quarter, West sent him tumbling to the court with a hard foul, and Teague came to his teammate's defense. After a bit more shoving and jawing, the teams were separated. The officials reviewed the video and stuck with their original call — a flagrant foul on West, a technical on Teague.
"I don't think it was a dirty play. It was a hard foul. It's playoff basketball," Horford said.
Still, he was impressed by Teague's reaction.
"I was very surprised," Horford said. "I was like, 'Was that you?' I was happy. I was proud. He had my back out there."
For the most part, the game lived up to the nickname the Hawks' PR department has tried to push on the team for years. This was, indeed, the Highlight Factory — most notably late in the first half, when Devin Harris took off on a fast break, glanced over his left shoulder and spotted Smith sprinting up from behind. Harris delivered a perfect behind-the-back pass, and Smith unleashed a thunderous left-handed slam that would've scored a perfect "10" in a dunk contest.
The Pacers, in fact, spent most of the night in a defensive fog. Stephenson fouled Harris on a desperation 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down, and the Atlanta player knocked down all three free throws. Then, after the Pacers made a couple of free throws with 6 seconds left in the half, Harris let the inbounds pass roll nearly to midcourt to save time, then scooped it up and took off for an uncontested layup that sent the Hawks to the locker room with their 24-point lead.
Notes: The Pacers' last win in Atlanta was a regular-season triumph Dec. 22, 2006. ... The Hawks missed six of their first 10 free throws, extending the troubles they had in the first two games. But they bounced back to make 14 of their last 18. ... Petro finished with six points and four rebounds.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963