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Ball Don't Lie

Respect due: Jeff Teague is turning skeptics into believers

Dan Devine
Ball Don't Lie

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Jeff Teague played a few more minutes per night as a second-year man during the 2010-11 regular season than he did as a rookie the year before. He scored more points per 36 minutes, improved his field goal and 3-point shooting percentages, showed an improved touch out to about 15 feet, and rebounded a little more often. He assisted on a slightly lower percentage of his Atlanta Hawks teammates' baskets, but he also turned the ball over a bit less.

On balance, then, the numbers say that Teague got better this year; this is to be expected as a player moves from Year 1 as a professional to Year 2. But whether you like your measuring sticks advanced — a regular-season Player Efficiency Rating of 14.6 put him below the league average of 15 — or, um, unadvanced, I guess ("Larry Drew must have seen something he didn't like to only give the kid 14 minutes a night!"), you were hard-pressed to argue that Teague is really a key piece for the Hawks right now.

Sure, he'd had a couple of nice late-season games — 24 points, five steals, three assists and three blocks against the Portland Trail Blazers in March, for example, or 21 points on 10 shots in just 21 minutes against the Indiana Pacers just before the start of the playoffs. But the consensus opinion seemed to be that, whether he deserved a crack or not, he wouldn't really be a player to be reckoned with this postseason.

Then, starting point guard Kirk Hinrich hurt his leg as the Hawks closed out their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series against the Orlando Magic. The severe right hamstring strain would render him a spectator for at least the start of Atlanta's second-round matchup with the top-seeded Chicago Bulls, and there were no other legitimate options for Drew at the one, so Teague was pushed into the starting lineup for just the 11th time in 150 career NBA games.

The smart money (and dumb money like mine, too) pegged Teague's insertion as unfavorable for Atlanta. The thinking was that Derrick Rose, Chicago's MVP trigger-man, would eat the still-ripening Wake Forest product for breakfast (no LeBron), pacing the Bulls to a blitzkrieg of the Hawks en route to the Eastern Conference finals.

But a funny thing happened on the way to a too-easy blowout: Jeff Teague has played like a man bent on making a reputation for himself. And he's actually doing it.

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In Atlanta's stunning Game 1 upset, Teague hustled for nearly 45 of the game's 48 minutes, using his quickness and athleticism (and, as Zach Lowe noted at The Point Forward, quite a bit of help from Josh Smith and Al Horford) to hound Rose into some early misses. Combine the defensive effort with his not-eye-popping-but-steady-enough contributions on the offensive end — 10 points on 5-for-11 shooting, five assists and, most importantly, just one turnover — and the series' most glaring mismatch turned into a much more even affair than most expected, helping the Hawks wrest home-court advantage from Tom Thibodeau's team.

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The Bulls evened the series Wednesday night with an ugly Game 2 victory, but Teague turned in another strong performance. As Bret LaGree wrote at Hawks blog Hoopinion, he again "did as good a job on Derrick Rose as can reasonably be expected" defensively, and stepped up his offensive game, making 50 percent of his field-goal attempts and going 6 for 7  from the foul line to score 21 points, and posting three assists, three rebounds, two blocked shots and no turnovers in just under 40 minutes of run.

At times on Wednesday, Teague looked like the steadiest, most collected player on the court for Atlanta. Admittedly, that's not saying a ton when you consider how scattered the Hawks played. But it's damn sure not nothing, especially for a second-year bit-parter making just his second playoff start against the league's newly minted "it" boy.

The showing impressed CBSSports.com's Royce Young:

Teague's effort in the first two games of this series is probably the second best thing the Hawks are taking back with them to Atlanta (a win being the first). [...] In Game 2, he outplayed the guy that was just handed the MVP trophy by David Stern before the game.

That, along with the snatching of homecourt in Game 1, means the Hawks have a chance.

It also drew the comedic ire of Matt McHale at Bulls blog By the Horns:

Oh, and could somebody, anybody, do something about Jeff Teague (21 points, 7-for-14, 6-for-7 from the line, zero turnovers)? Teague is playing so well that the Bulls are praying for Kirk Hinrich to miraculously heal overnight.

While Hinrich works on getting back on the court, the staunch defender, cerebral player and former Bull is doing what he can to prepare Teague for what he'll see on the court, according to Ken Sugiura of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Drew's decision to bring Kirk Hinrich to Chicago despite not having hopes of playing him because of his hamstring injury proved fruitful. Hinrich, a former Bull, offered Jeff Teague and others insight on the Chicago roster.

"He's always in my ear, every timeout, telling me things I can do, how I can guard Derrick Rose on a certain play or what he sees on offense, plays to call, things like that," Teague said.

To be fair, this reservoir of goodwill and positive impressions could dry up in the space of 12 hours. It's possible that Teague has difficulty sustaining his sound, careful offensive play and turns in a less-than-stellar performance, as inexperienced point guards often do in the postseason. That wouldn't be shocking at all; in fact, it's what many of us probably expect to happen sooner or later (and more likely sooner).

More to the point, it's very possible that Rose, after some rest and a couple of days of treatment on his ailing ankle, comes out Friday night and plays like the MVP we watched for the last six months. If he's that aggressive, that sharp, that quick and that adept at finishing, there's very little that Teague (or anyone else, for that matter) can do to stop him, no matter what advice Hinrich gives or how much help the Hawks' bigs can offer. If that happens, Chicago will probably win Game 3, re-take home-court advantage, and once again be viewed as the team in the driver's seat.

But irrespective of how Friday night's game turns out, it's immutable fact that Jeff Teague has made an awful lot of people stand up and take notice of his talents over these last two games. Where many non-Hawks fans once looked in his direction and saw a slightly below-average first-round pick who has yet to bear fruit, a national audience is now seeing what more ardent Atlanta backers like the guys at Peachtree Hoops have long argued was really there:

Sure, Jeff Teague is inconsistent offensively and probably would be for a while in an offense where he'd be the 4th option at best, but the ability to hold his counterpart to a minimal carnage vs. the Hawks has been long undervalued.  Of the 9 games he's started as a Hawk, I recall at least 3 that he was the BEST HAWK on the floor.  [...] Teague has proven that he belongs on the court with the best players in the league in all situations (starting, closing, clutch, defensive stops, etc).

If the coming-out party came in a series that wasn't widely considered to be one of the uglier second-round matchups in recent memory, maybe more people would've shown up and taken note of just how impressive Teague's been. Oh, well. More punch and pie for the rest of us.

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