Originally written November 28, 2012 on Fox Sports South:
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ATLANTA Hawks point guard Jeff Teague may slither elusively to the basket, but coach Larry Drew used an unusual metaphor to describe his player nonetheless. Hes the head of the snake for us, Drew said. When hes going well, chances are, we are, too. The Hawks Al Horford might have been the NBAs Player of the Week, but Teague arguably is playing the best basketball of his career. It has translated into a league-best six-game winning streak entering Wednesdays game with Charlotte. Teague posted 28 assists in the past three games. For the second and third time in the short 13 games of the season Teague recorded at least 11 assists last week. At 7.1 per game, he has cracked the top 10 in the league in that category. While it cant be said that his performance represents a quantum leap over his past production, Teagues assists are up 2.2 per game over his average from last season. How does Teague explain it? Well, he doesnt really. Hes too humble. Just playing, he said. Its an opportunity to have the ball in your hands. Just want to make plays, just the right plays. Having the ability to have shooters like Kyle Korver and Lou (Williams) and Josh (Smith) and Al to finish, its easy. But Teague also might be too polite to point out another reality: The Joe Johnson trade to Brooklyn. Johnson might have earned perennial All-Star honors, but he also became a black hole when he got the ball and was much derided for the Hawks Iso-Joe offense. With Johnson gone, it has helped Teague to develop by, as he said, having the ball in his hands more. As a result, he is blossoming, and those around him see the change. I think hes seeing the game a lot better than he has in the past and I think that just comes from experience, Horford said. He knows when to shoot the ball now and when to pass. Hes doing a really good job of that. Maybe in the past he had me for open shots and he would realize it, but he wouldnt pass. Now, its like second nature. If he sees he doesnt have a great shot, hes passing the ball or getting us easy baskets. Hes doing great. Hes the reason why were playing so well. Teague, now in his fourth year in the NBA, didnt become a starter until late in his second season when the team traded incumbent Mike Bibby. Teague was freed the notion of having to compete for the job and began to prosper. Although the Hawks received Kirk Hinrich in return, Hinrich did not play the same role and at the risk of psychoanalyzing did not have the same mentoring, big-brother identity to Teague as Bibby did. When new general manager Danny Ferry acquired so many guards this past offseason with whom Teague again would have to compete namely, Williams and former All-Star Devin Harris Drew wanted to assuage any doubts that might have cropped up in Teagues mind. Over the summer, Drew flew to Indiana, where Teague keeps his offseason home and met with him. Drew said he wanted to explain to Teague given what our personnel situation was, how I was going to approach it and how I wanted him to approach it. He doesnt have to look over his shoulder, Drew said. Were always going to stay together. We have other guys who can come in the game and help us win. That whole looking-over-his-shoulder thing, we tried to dismiss that very early along with the rest of the players. Were all in this together. Some nights are not going to be your night and some nights youre going to carry the club. Under no circumstances did I want him to feel that. I dont care whos behind him that he has to look over his shoulder. I just want you out there playing, playing with confidence, playing hard, having fun. The gesture by his coach was not lost on Teague. Asked about it on Wednesday, his eyes grew wide as he discussed the idea of someone coming from California, where Drew keeps his permanent home, to visit Indiana. Yeah, to come to Indiana? Teague said. I dont think people come to Indiana in their off-time. So for him to come out there, I knew he meant business and I appreciated it. Still, Teague maintains the Hawks acquisitions of Harris and Williams didnt bother him. Nah, Im not even that type of guy, Teague said. I just try to go out there and do what I can do. Ive been in that situation before with Kirk Hinrich and Mike Bibby and those guys, so Ive always had to compete but its always good competition. With his increased confidence running the point, Teagues 13.5 points per game (currently a career high) rank third on the team and the most among the guards, as the Hawks own the Eastern Conferences fourth-best record entering Wednesday's action. He posted back-to-back double-doubles over the weekend, including 19 points in 45 minutes while going against the Los Angeles Clippers Chris Paul in Saturdays 104-93 win. (Paul had the same amount of points but fewer assists.) Hes really starting to mold into a consistent point guard, Drew said. Jeff has the ability to score. He also has the ability to break the defense down and force the defense to collapse. Hes making better decisions in those situations. In transition, hes making better decisions and, breaking a defense down, hes making better decisions. As I told him, I dont want him to lose his aggressiveness, particularly pushing the ball and being creative and attacking. I dont ever want him to lose his aggressiveness, but I do want him to just be smarter in his decision-making. Be a little more selective. More important, just let your natural basketball instincts take over and I think hes starting to really find his niche in that area.
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