Atlanta Hawks' Season Rests on Jeff Teague's Shoulders

Alec Nathan@@AlecBNathanFeatured ColumnistMay 26, 2015

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 24:  Jeff Teague #0 of the Atlanta Hawks reacts in overtime against the Cleveland Cavaliers during Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 24, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Cleveland Cavaliers dared Jeff Teague to beat them in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and he nearly did. Now in Game 4, he needs to adjust to Cleveland's tactics in order to keep the Atlanta Hawks' season alive.

Atlanta's point guard finished with a team-high 30 points Sunday night, including a go-ahead three-pointer that put the Cavaliers in a two-point hole with 55 seconds remaining in overtime.

In the end, though, it wasn't enough.

And that's exactly what Cleveland was banking on.

CLEVELAND,OH :  Jeff Teague #0 of the Atlanta Hawks goes up for the layup against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Quicken Loans Arena During Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2015 NBA Playoffs on May 24, 2015 in Cleveland,OhioNOTE TO U
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

As the Cavaliers established a 3-0 series lead with a 114-111 Game 3 win, they maintained a clear focus and distinct discipline on the defensive end. At all costs, Cleveland wanted Teague to handle the ball and shoot it as much as possible.

That may sound like a strange strategy on the surface, considering Teague is Atlanta's best ball-handler and a versatile scorer who can tickle the twine in a variety of ways using his dribble.

However, it proved to be a shrewd tactical move from Cavaliers head coach David Blatt—one that he would be wise to implement in Game 4 as Cleveland eyes an Eastern Conference Finals sweep.

All series long, Teague has enjoyed success below the free-throw line. Teague has converted 64.7 percent of his attempts in the restricted area, which is nearly double his field-goal percentage from any other basic zone he's regularly launched shots from, as seen in the chart below:

Jeff Teague's ECF Shot Chart (Games 1-3)
Jeff Teague's ECF Shot Chart (Games 1-3)Credit: NBA.com/Stats

It made sense, then, for the Cavaliers to give Teague as much space as possible to operate outside of 15 feet—essentially daring him to attempt low-percentage looks as a way to keep him out of a rhythm and stagnate the Hawks offense.

On Sunday night, Teague did just that.

He attempted 23 shots—11 more than any other Atlanta player. He made just nine of them, including 3-of-8 from beyond the arc. A perfect 9-of-9 effort in free-throw attempts smoothed things out to a degree, but freebies couldn't mask just how effective Cleveland's strategy was.

Here's a look at Teague's Game 3 shot chart:

Jeff Teague's Game 3 Shot Chart
Jeff Teague's Game 3 Shot ChartCredit: NBA.com/Stats

Zach Harper of CBSSports.com broke down the contest:

Teague accumulated 93 total touches22 more than the team's second-leading scorer, Paul Millsap (22 points).

The contributing factor to that gap was Cleveland's scheme.

Instead of playing Teague aggressively in pick-and-rolls and trying to siphon off his ability to hit threes, Cleveland guards willingly went under screens. Not only that, but the Cavaliers chose to drop bigs in conservative coverages in pick-and-rolls, which essentially gave Teague no choice but to rise and fire.

Just look at how much space Tristan Thompson afforded Teague on this possession toward the end of the second quarter:

Credit: NBA League Pass Archives

The defense's sagging back to the free-throw line duped Teague into taking the long-range attempt and deterred him from using his greatest asset to get an easy layup at the cup.

Cleveland's neutralizing Teague's speed in the half court had far-reaching effects, too.

Blatt's strategy of giving him space and time to ponder outside shots drained Atlanta's offense of the quick side-to-side ball movement facilitated by drive-and-kick opportunities. Thus, the integrity of the Hawks offense became compromised.

The Huffington Post's Jordan Schultz explained how the Cavaliers capped Teague's ability to flourish in that system:

One of the key reasons for Teague's dramatic spike in production under coach Mike Budenholzer has been the freedom with which he's able to operate. Similar to Golden State, the Hawks want to spread out their opponents and use shooting bigs Al Horford and Paul Millsapnot just Kyle Korver and Carrollas threats. The Cavs, while employing a smaller lineup with LeBron James at the four, have used their superior quickness to close on shooters and eliminate quality looks.

Based on how much success Cleveland has had with its conservative defense against Teague, there may not be a complex solution to the problem that plagued the Hawks throughout Game 3.

Instead, he just has to make shots.

Teague shot 5-of-12 on uncontested field goals Sunday night, good for a knockdown rate of 41.7 percent. Following that performance, Teague is shooting 33.3 percent on "open" shots and 42.1 percent on "very open" shots against the Cavaliers. During the regular season, those percentages sat at 49.2 and 46.3, respectively.

That's the story of Atlanta's postseason in a nutshell.

A team that once thrived by hitting open shots and generating clean looks via extra passes and precise ball movement has been incapable of repeating those feats in a playoff setting.

"We are a really good team," Teague said after Game 3, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chris Vivlamore. "We played well the whole season. Things just happened. (The Cavaliers) are playing well. They have really good players. We never said it was going to be easy. We are not going to discredit what we did all year."

After maintaining the East's top net rating (plus-5.6 points per 100 possessions) during the regular season, the Hawks have fallen off with a shot to qualify for the NBA Finals. Through three games against the Cavs, Atlanta's getting outscored by 6.2 points per 100 possessions, and its offense is to blame.

But the Hawks have one last gasp, and if Game 3 was any indication, Teague will have every chance to keep their season alive.

With DeMarre Carroll (knee) gimpy, Kyle Korver (ankle) out, Al Horford (knee) dinged up and the bench sputtering, he has to be the man.

Although Cleveland has stymied his aggressive pursuits to a degree, the All-Star floor general has a chance to save the offense and at least delay the inevitable.

That's hardly what the Hawks hoped to be playing for at this point in the postseason, but it's a consolation capable of speaking volumes about Teague's talent and the team's resiliency.

  

All statistics are current as of May 25 and courtesy of NBA.com unless noted otherwise.

Alec Nathan covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @AlecBNathan.

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