By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
Posted May 3 2011 10:55AM
CHICAGO -- As the Atlanta Hawks took the court Monday evening, after the reliably dramatic Chicago Bulls' lights-out introductions and an especially impassioned national anthem -- Osama bin Laden was gone fishin' from these and all future playoffs -- Larry Drew gave a quickie pep talk to his point guard for the night.
"You're Jeff Teague!" Drew reminded him. And, uh, it was meant in a more grandiose, confidence-boosting way than it comes across via a keyboard.
It also was precisely what some Hawks fans feared and some Bulls fans hooted and pointed from the seats nearby even as Drew was stoking him: He's Jeff Teague.
Going against Derrick Rose.
In the days and hours leading up to Game 1 of Bulls-Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Teague's duty in matching up with Rose -- arguably the best point guard in the NBA this season and presumably the 2011 Most Valuable Player (to be confirmed Tuesday) -- was looking like one of the all-time mismatches in history.
Bambi vs. Godzilla. Grenada vs. U.S., 1983. Any unsuspecting NBA big man against young Shaq about 15 years ago.
"Oh, I'm sure. No question," Hawks forward/center Al Horford told me after Atlanta's surprising 103-95 victory in the series opener. "Think about it. Derrick Rose, in my eyes, is the MVP. So going against a guy like that? And it's his first game in the playoffs?
"But, I mean, he held it down. Jeff came in and was solid. He was ready -- that was the biggest thing, just staying ready. And we have confidence in him."
Teague's coaches and teammates said so before, but they surely do know. The little-used, second-year guard from Wake Forest stayed within 14 points offensively and scant inches defensively of Rose in Game 1. If his knees were knocking, no one noticed, not with all the other activity he was generating.
Teague scored 10 points, dished a team-high five assists and had just one turnover in 44 minutes, 37 seconds (compared to Rose's 24 points, 10 assists and three turnovers in 40:50). The Atlanta backup -- thrust into the spotlight possibly for the whole series by starter Kirk Hinrich's strained hamstring -- didn't get to the foul line at all. But then, neither did Rose.
The Bulls guard, in a similarly lukewarm start by his team in Game 1 of its first-round series against Indiana, tilted the outcome in Chicago's favor with a 19-for-21 flurry of free throws. This time, Rose didn't work for that -- or sufficiently risk life and limb, in the form of that sprained left ankle suffered against the Pacers -- and appeared to settle for more jump shots. The Bulls overall wound up static, cutters not cutting, everyone missing Rose's drive-and-kick creativity or just waiting for him to finish at the rim.
Rose did whatever it took to get 49 free throws in the first three games against Indiana. But he rolled the ankle in Game 4 and now has shot 11 free throws in the past three games. And if he was hurting Monday after six days between games, he might really be limited in Game 2 Wednesday; near the end of the opener, for no good reason, he was pressuring Jamal Crawford and rolled the same ankle.
"It's fine," Rose said afterward. "I just took my time walking off."
He and the Bulls better not take their time doing anything, anymore, in this series. They are breathing life into the theory that their stunning 62-20 regular season was the result of superior focus and preparation, compared to most teams' mode through 82 games. First-year head coach Tom Thibodeau stayed awake nights to bring playoff-level study to December, January and February, shifting through his full gearbox before the playoffs ever began. Now that they're here, and other teams can lock in and kick a notch higher, the Bulls have nothing in reserve.
A No. 8 seed played them toe to toe. A No. 5 seed already has swiped the homecourt edge that was such a goal for six months.
And that Thibodeau-trademark defense that generated so much of the Bulls' offense all season long? As absent from the second-round opener as Jameer Nelson was at United Center (yes, the Hawks left a pair of nosebleed tickets for him).
Atlanta -- which is the anti-Chicago, leaning on its offense to carry the defense -- jumped to a 9-0 lead, scored 28 points in the first quarter and then 31 in the fourth. Just as they had been in the three regular-season meetings, the Hawks were hotter from 3-point range (7 of 13, 53.8 percent) than from inside that arc (33 of 65, 50.7 percent). And all of those numbers were fat enough to set Thibodeau's molars to grinding.
Known widely as a team that will shoot itself out of games, mostly due to poor shot selection, Atlanta won on a night when Josh Smith was his cockeyed, outside 3-of-11 self. But Joe Johnson hit even his toughest tries, so a more involved night by Horford (foul trouble) or a smarter or luckier night by Smith could have turned Game 1 into a Hawks blowout.
As for Teague, the 6-foot-2 guard -- quick, but allegedly not Rose-quick -- played just nine minutes in the first round against Orlando, tben went nearly five times as long against the Bulls. He scored his team's first bucket of the night -- a floater from nine feet -- and then did it again with a dunk to start the third quarter. He got some help defensively from his mates, mostly strong "shows" in pick and rolls, but few frenzied traps or overt double-teams to bottle up Rose.
Teague walked onto the floor being reminded of just who he was by his coach, and walked off to be handed the Hawks' game ball by Drew.
"He played like a seasoned vet," the Atlanta coach said. "His aggression, his attack state, his ability to get into the paint, he played like a kid that has been playing a lot of minutes for me.
"With the assignment that he had tonight, dealing with the pressures of being in the playoffs, having to defend probably the MVP of the league, he stepped up really, really big. ... To take on the challenge of defending a guy like Rose. And then on the offensive end, not being shy, not being timid."
This wasn't necessarily a star-is-born performance for Teague; he's been around for two years, averaging 5.2 points, 1.8 assists and 11.9 minutes in 141 games. But it wasn't a star-unleashed performance for Rose, and that worked just fine for the Hawks. It will be less important going forward that Teague remembers his name and more important that the Bulls and their fans do.
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