The No. 8 seed Hawks once again turned the basketball world upside-down on Thursday night, beating the No. 1 seed Indiana Pacers soundly in the second half en route to a 98-85 victory in Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven first-round series.
As they were in the first two games of the series, Atlanta was led by its point guard Teague, who scored a game-high 22 points and dished 10 assists in the win.
The Hawks rarely played on national TV during their 38-44 regular season...or the year before that...or the year before that. Though they have made the playoffs a conference-high seven years in a row, they are usually relegated to NBA TV during the first round.
It would be fair to say, then, that Teague has been one of the NBA's best-kept secrets.
Teague's performances in past years have given him something of a cult following among hardcore basketball fans. Just check out the "PlayoffTeague" hashtag on Twitter:
Been telling you #playoffteague for four years.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 25, 2014
I may have come around on the validity of #playoffteague— Michael Pina (@MichaelVPina) April 25, 2014
But the truth is that Teague has been nearly as good during the regular season as he has in the playoffs over the past four years. Here is a comparison of his per-game numbers coming into Thursday:
Jeff Teague is just a darn good point guard...and he has reminded the Pacers of that fact in each and every game of this series.
He wasn't efficient on Thursday—shooting a woeful 7-of-20 from the field—but that is sometimes to be expected when facing Indiana's top-ranked defense.
The important thing for Teague was that he hit the shots when they mattered...even if one of them maybe shouldn't have counted.
More Than Just "The Shot"
Teague helped put the Pacers away on Thursday by hitting one of the most improbable (and controversial) shots of the season. With 2:49 remaining and the Hawks up six, he appeared to to be trapped in the corner with the shot clock running out. But the slippery guard rose up and hit a miraculous three over a defender to put Atlanta up nine.
After the shot, Teague reacted in true Michael Jordan style, mimicking that famous expression from the 1992 Finals. So congratulations to all of you who had Teague in your "first Hawk to make the Jordan shrug in the 2014 playoffs" pool. (Personally, I was hoping for Pero Antic.)
When the referees went back to review the play at the next break, however, it certainly appeared to show that Teague's foot landed out of bounds before the shot. Unfortunately for the Pacers, league rules stipulate that they can't change an out-of-bounds call before the two-minute mark, as head referee Tony Brothers explained in a statement after the game.
Per Hardwood Paroxysm's Robby Kalland:
Tony Brothers' statement on Teague 3 is that the ruling is you can only review the player's feet at the moment they last touched the floor.— Robby Kalland (@RKalland) April 25, 2014
Since Teague's foot came back inbounds before he shot the ball, him stepping out was not reviewable.— Robby Kalland (@RKalland) April 25, 2014
Regardless of whether or not that shot should have counted, it would not be fair to define Teague's magnificent fourth quarter on one moment.
The Pacers threatened early in the fourth when head coach Frank Vogel benched struggling All-Star center Roy Hibbert in favor of a more offensively gifted big man in Luis Scola. The move paid immediate dividends, as the Pacers went on an 11-4 run. Scola and shooting guard Lance Stephenson paced Indiana (pun intended) in the fourth with 12 points apiece.
The Hawks needed someone to match the Pacers' suddenly rejuvenated offense, and Teague delivered with 11 points and two assists down the stretch.
A Recipe for an Upset
The Pacers have one of the best wing combos in the NBA in Paul George and Lance Stephenson, but they are losing this series at the point and up front—the two poles of the halfcourt offense, so to speak.
|Game 1 (W)||35||28||5||47.4||+8|
|Game 2 (L)||28||14||4||46.2||-13|
|Game 3 (W)||37||22||10||35.0||+9|
Thanks to Teague, the Hawks have been killing Indiana at the point when matched up with George Hill, forcing Frank Vogel to switch perimeter stoppers like George (who guarded him for a time in Game 2) and Stephenson (who picked up Teague in the fourth quarter on Saturday).
More troubling for Indiana is the fact that it's losing the battle up front despite facing a Hawks team that lost All-Star center Al Horford way back in the first half of the season. But Atlanta may have stumbled into the perfect recipe for upsetting the Pacers when they replaced Horford with stretch-5 center Pero Antic.
Not only has Antic's ability to shoot from outside totally neutralized Roy Hibbert, who is not comfortable venturing outside the paint, it has also opened the court up for Teague power forward Paul Millsap, as Grantland's Zach Lowe diagrammed on Tuesday:
The Hawks are now 3-0 against Indy when Pero Antic is available, and their starting lineup is a monstrous plus-41 in 54 minutes against the Pacers this season, per NBA.com. Atlanta has shooting at every position, and that has proved too much for the Pacers so far. The Teague–Paul Millsap pick-and-roll was especially damaging.
It would be shocking if Frank Vogel started Mahinmi and used Hibbert off the bench against Elton Brand, who stays closer to Hibbert’s territory at the rim. But nothing really worked in Game 1, and Teague tore them apart regardless of which style Indiana used. Luis Scola can’t guard anything, and Millsap will take him to the block the second Scola enters the game.
Indeed, Vogel said he will "probably" start Hibbert in Game 4, per the Indianapolis Star's Candace Buckner. He seems dead set on staying with the players who have brought him this far.
That might not be good enough. Jeff Teague and the Hawks are pushing the Pacers to the brink of a shocking upset. They are the right team at the right time.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.