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 Atlanta’s 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 Sunday, when both teams practiced at Philips Arena to prepare for Game 4. “He doesn’t take possessions off. He will stand up to any challenge, whoever he has to defend. He’s a physical, rugged player. A lot of guys don’t like playing against guys like that.”
Johnson isn’t 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, though Johnson has struggled at times to keep his emotions in check. He was sent home last season for conduct detrimental to the team and, judging by the ominous stare he flashes anytime things don’t go his way, he always seems on the verge of crossing the line again.
“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. He’s 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. He’s got a good knack for the game.”
Johnson’s defensive presence helped free up Horford to focus more on the offensive end. He responded with 26 points, along with 16 rebounds, as the Hawks built a commanding 24-point lead by halftime and were never seriously threatened.
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.
Petro missed practice Sunday, returning home to Miami to be with his wife during the birth of their child. She was scheduled to deliver in time for her husband to get back to Atlanta for Game 4.
The bigger lineup — 3-point specialist Kyle Korver came off the bench — 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. Indiana’s 7-2 center, Roy Hibbert, managed just 8 points after scoring 15.5 per contest in Indiana.
“The whole thing helped us size-wise,” Horford said. “We were able to get Petro in there, which made an impact on Hibbert. Then Ivan came in and did the same. They freed me up to get more offensive minded. It just goes hand in hand.”
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. “We’ve got to play tougher and with more of an edge.”
Indiana made four of its first six shots, building an 8-1 lead that prompted Drew to call a timeout less than 3 minutes into the game. After that, it was all Hawks. The Pacers missed 30 of their next 36 attempts, trailed 54-30 at halftime, and matched the lowest-scoring first half in the franchise’s playoff history.
“Shots weren’t falling, but we allowed those shots not to fall,” George said. “We weren’t aggressive. We weren’t taking up our own air space. They were making us catch the ball where they wanted. We really weren’t fighting for spots.”
If Petro isn’t available for Game 4, the Hawks will be in a bit of predicament. The 6-foot-8 Johnson could get the start at center, allowing Horford and Smith to stay in the roles that worked so well Saturday.
Then again, Drew prefers to use Johnson as a backup.
“I don’t want to disrupt that,” the coach said. “He’s done such a good job bringing us energy off the bench. I would hate to lose that if I put him in the starting lineup.”
Johnson will accept whatever role he’s given.
“I’m just trying to make my presence felt,” he told reporters after the game. “That’s a matter of being a big man. We’ve got to throw our bodies around to get what we want.”
The Pacers know they’ll have to contend with Johnson if they want to regain control of the series.
“He’s a great energy guy, a guy that just constantly battles,” George said. “He’s an emotional player. The whole team feeds off his energy and his motor.”