ATLANTA (AP) Jeff Teague will have to do his best against the NBA’s expected MVP, the guy who led the Chicago Bulls to more wins than any other team.
“It’s a tough situation,” Teague said Saturday, sitting at his locker after a lengthy practice with the Atlanta Hawks. “But these are the kind of moments you live for.”
The second-year guard is expected to take on a key role in the Eastern Conference semifinals after Kirk Hinrich went down in the closing minutes of a series-clinching win over Orlando with a severely strained hamstring.
Hinrich is unlikely to play in this round, meaning the Hawks have got to find a point guard who can run the offense and, most important, give Chicago star Derrick Rose some problems at the defensive end.
While no one is likely to be given the exclusive job of guarding Rose – that’s far too much to ask of anyone – Teague has the quickness to at least give it a shot.
But the former first-round pick out of Wake Forest has struggled to provide the sort of consistency that coach Larry Drew wants, saddling the youngster with long stints on the bench between the occasional start.
In the opening series against Orlando, the Hawks went with a bigger lineup to combat Dwight Howard, which left no role for Teague. He played in only two of six games, for a total of nine minutes.
Now, he has to grow up fast.
Game 1 is Monday night in Chicago.
“We’ve seen him be really, really good. Other times, he hasn’t been so good,” Drew said. “The consistency is not there. But even with that being said, I’ll never give up on him. I told him that. I still believe in his ability. I know that when he plays with a consistency, he’s a totally different player and we’re a totally different team. I’m never going to give up on that. I see something in him I really like.”
Teague barely played at all his rookie year, which was one of major criticisms against former coach Mike Woodson. Some felt he didn’t do enough to develop Teague as a reliable backup, and that was clearly a goal when Woodson was fired and his top assistant inherited the job.
Drew put Teague in the starting lineup a couple of times, once for a four-game stretch in late February after Hinrich was acquired from Washington, then again for three games in mid-March as part of a rotation that shifted Hinrich to shooting guard and Joe Johnson to small forward.
Teague turned in perhaps the best performance of his career in a win over Portland, playing 44 minutes and getting 24 points, five steals, three assists and even three blocks. Drew was so impressed that he seemed committed to sticking with the new lineup for the long haul.
That lasted only two more games. Teague made 3 of 16 shots, failed to push the offense and was sent back to the bench.
“I just need to play. Don’t try to think too much,” he said. “When you start thinking out there, that’s when things go wrong. I need to just go out there and play, play as hard as I can and do what I can to help the team.”
The Bulls, who had to work surprisingly hard to finish off a five-game victory over Indiana in the opening round, surely know they’ve caught a break with Hinrich’s injury.
But Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau played down any advantage his team might have, pointing to players such as Teague and super sub Jamal Crawford, who led the Hawks with 20.5 points a game in the opening round.
“They have quality depth,” Thibodeau said. “Crawford has played a lot of minutes. Teague has played extremely well when he’s been in their rotation. He’s a guy that you can’t overlook. Joe Johnson has the ability to handle the ball. They’ve got a lot of depth in their backcourt. Their perimeter guys are really skilled.”
The Pacers kept switching up on Rose, trying to throw him off his game by defending him with everyone from 6-foot point guard Darren Collison to Danny Granger and Paul George, a pair of 6-8 forwards. While it was effective at times, Rose still managed 27.6 points a game.
He’s approaching this series with the same mindset, not the least bit concerned about who’s healthy enough to play for the Hawks or who might be defending him.
“It doesn’t change at all,” he said. “Teague or whoever starts in (Hinrich’s) spot, they’re good players. Jamal, he’s a scorer, keeps them going, keeps them in games. … They’ve got a lot of athletic people on that team.”
The Hawks haven’t won a second-round playoff game in 14 years. They were swept the last two years, losing to Cleveland and Orlando.
With Hinrich hurting, many are expecting the same result.
“We love it. There’s no pressure on us. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain,” Crawford said. “We’ll just go out there, have fun, compete hard and see what happens.”
Then, he added with a smile, “We kind of embrace that role a little bit.”
AP Sports Writer Andrew Seligman in Deerfield, Ill., contributed to this report.
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