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.
“He’s the head of the snake for us,” Drew said. “When he’s going well, chances are, we are, too.”
The Hawks’ Al Horford might have been the NBA’s 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 Wednesday’s 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 can’t be said that his performance represents a quantum leap over his past production, Teague’s assists are up 2.2 per game over his average from last season.
How does Teague explain it? Well, he doesn’t really. He’s too humble.
“Just playing,” he said. “It’s 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, it’s 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 he’s 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. He’s doing a really good job of that.
“Maybe in the past he had me for open shots and he would realize it, but he wouldn’t pass. Now, it’s like second nature. If he sees he doesn’t have a great shot, he’s passing the ball or getting us easy baskets.
“He’s doing great. He’s the reason why we’re playing so well.”
Teague, now in his fourth year in the NBA, didn’t 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 Teague’s 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 doesn’t have to look over his shoulder,” Drew said. “We’re 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.
“We’re all in this together. Some nights are not going to be your night and some nights you’re going to carry the club. Under no circumstances did I want him to feel that. I don’t care who’s 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 don’t 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 didn’t bother him.
“Nah, I’m not even that type of guy,” Teague said. “I just try to go out there and do what I can do. I’ve been in that situation before with Kirk Hinrich and Mike Bibby and those guys, so I’ve always had to compete but it’s always good competition.”
With his increased confidence running the point, Teague’s 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 Conference’s 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 Saturday’s 104-93 win. (Paul had the same amount of points but fewer assists.)
“He’s 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. He’s making better decisions in those situations. In transition, he’s making better decisions and, breaking a defense down, he’s making better decisions.
“As I told him, I don’t want him to lose his aggressiveness, particularly pushing the ball and being creative and attacking. I don’t 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 he’s starting to really find his niche in that area.”