ATLANTA — High-flying Josh Smith dominated on the inside. Joe Johnson stepped up from the outside when the Hawks needed him.
The result: Atlanta has a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven series for the first time in 40 years.
Johnson took control in the fourth quarter to finish off a 27-point effort, Smith finished one assist shy of a triple-double and the Hawks ran away from the pesky but outmanned Milwaukee Bucks for a 96-86 victory in the Eastern Conference playoffs Tuesday night.
Smith played as though he's still upset about being snubbed for the All-Star game, when teammates Johnson and Al Horford were selected but he stayed home. He's certainly a player capable of taking control of a series in many ways, as he demonstrated with his 21 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists, not to mention two blocks and two steals.
"There's nothing he can't do on the floor," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. "We just have to keep him playing at a high level, keep his head in the game and we'll be just fine."
That applies to the team as a whole. Woodson was mindful of last season, when Atlanta blew out Miami in its playoff opener – then lost at home and had to go the full seven games.
This time, the Hawks took care of business on their home court. They'll head to Milwaukee on Saturday night with a commanding lead, the first time they've won the first two in a best-of-seven series since the Western Division semifinals in 1970. That team went on to beat Chicago in five games, but lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the division finals.
The current Hawks aren't taking anything for granted, even though they've seemed capable of pulling away any time Milwaukee tries to make a run.
"We're on edge," said Horford, who teamed with Smith to give the Hawks a big edge in the lane. "We can't take them lightly. We know it's going to be tough up there."
Again, the Hawks' balance and size advantage on the inside were just too much for the Bucks, who knew they'd face a huge challenge in this series after 7-foot center Andrew Bogut took a hard fall late in the regular season and was done for the playoffs.
All five Atlanta starters reached double figures for the second game in a row, and the two guys on the inside sure took advantage of Bogut's absence.
Smith had the crowd on its feet with four thunderous dunks and a couple more above-the-rim lay-ins. Horford was nearly as dominant, scoring 20 points, snatching down 10 rebounds and blocking three shots.
"We understand that we've got bigger guys down low," Smith said. "When we miss a shot, we can usually get the putback or pass to a wide-open (Mike) Bibby or Joe. We want to make it easy for those guys."
When Smith is really on his game, he fires up the home crowd with his gravity defying plays.
"He's one of those players that can control the game without calling plays for him," said John Salmons, who led the Bucks with 21 points.
Johnson took over in the fourth quarter. After Milwaukee had closed to single-digit range, he buried four straight jumpers, the last of them a 3-pointer from the corner after snaring a rocket pass from Smith, pushing the Hawks to an 87-74 lead that essentially finished off the Bucks.
"I felt like we were in a drought," said Johnson, who scored 10 points in the final period and bolstered his all-around effort with six assists, two blocks and a steal. "I just wanted to be aggressive and make plays."
Johnson also led the defensive effort against Bucks rookie star Brandon Jennings, who followed up a 34-point performance in Game 1 with just nine points on 3-of-15 shooting.
"All season long he's been playing point guards, so he's sort of used to it now," Woodson said. "And Jennings is a tough cover because he is so quick, and he can shoot the outside shot as well as get to the rim."
The Bucks head home, hoping to turn things around in the next two games. But they've led only three times in the series – never by more than two points – for a total of 1 minute, 32 seconds, looking very much like a team making its first playoff appearance since 2006.
"Our preparations have been great, but we're having trouble taking it onto the game floor," coach Scott Skiles said. "We knew it would be interesting to see how we would react in this type of environment. They outplayed us in almost every spot up and down the floor. We've got three days to get better."
Ersan Ilyasova came up big off the bench with 13 points and 15 rebounds, but Jerry Stackhouse was the only other Milwaukee player in double figures with 15 points. The Bucks shot only 41 percent (37 of 90).
The Bucks grabbed their first lead of the series, 4-2, on Luc Mbah a Moute's putback less than 1 1/2 minutes into the game. But Atlanta looked like it was headed for another first-half blitz, pushing out to 22-12 lead on Marvin Williams' three-point play.
In Game 1, the Hawks led by 20 in the opening quarter and 22 at halftime.
This time, Milwaukee kept it respectable in the early going, ripping off an 8-0 spurt to get right back in the game. But the Hawks scored the final six points of the period in flamboyant fashion. Smith stole the ball in the defensive end and took off, going all the way to the hoop for a thunderous left-handed jam that brought the crowd to its feet.
After Salmons turned it over, the Hawks were running again. Jamal Crawford missed on an attempted slam, but Smith grabbed the rebound and put it back in while stumbling backward with 2 seconds remaining to put Atlanta ahead 28-20.
Milwaukee got off a quick start in the second quarter, starting with a 12-2 run that gave the visiting team another brief lead, 32-30. Again, the Hawks quickly reclaimed the upper hand, scoring the next six points and leading the rest of the period – though never by more than seven. Johnson finished off the half with a driving layup that sent Atlanta to the locker room with a 52-46 lead.
NOTES: Atlanta's last triple-double in a playoff game was by Mookie Blaylock (14 points, 10 rebounds, 13 assists) in 1994. ... The Hawks won a Game 2 for the first time since a best-of-five series against Detroit in the opening round of the 1999 playoffs. ... The Hawks drew a second straight sellout, 18,938. ... Mbah a Moute scored eight of Milwaukee's first 10 points – and didn't score again.