Seconds later, Collison drives again. This time Teague, a point guard in his first season as a starter for the Hawks, is whistled for his fourth foul, sending him to the bench. Atlanta goes on to end a three-game losing streak, mostly without Teague’s help.
Forty-eight hours later, another challenge. The Hawks are in Orlando to face the Magic. Teague takes control when the set plays break down, attacking the rim with authority as the Hawks build a sizable lead. But in the final minutes his aggressiveness backfires. He misses consecutive shots in the paint, resulting in fast-break layups for the Magic, who come from behind to force overtime. Atlanta pulls out a 2-point win, and finishes with 13 points on 6-for-11 shooting, but more impressive is his one turnover in 39 minutes.
The lesson from the two games? Efficiency trumps enthusiasm.
Atlanta and Teague will end a brutal five-game trip Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, where the home team will get a close-up look at a player it bypassed in the 2009 draft. The sensation over point guard and his extraordinary play, seemingly out of nowhere, obscures the usual learning curve for first-time starting point guards in the N.B.A.
For every excellent night, like Teague’s 24-point outburst at New Orleans in January, there is a game like the one on Feb. 6 in which Steve Nash of Phoenix exploited Teague’s weakness at guarding the pick-and-roll to the tune of 24 points and 11 assists.
“I sure learned a lot from that game,” Teague said in a recent interview, shaking his head sadly. The rematch last Wednesday went better for him, as he scored 16 to Nash’s 22 in a 101-99 Hawks victory.
By most standards, Teague has been a success. The Hawks are 19-13 and in the mix in the top half of the Eastern Conference standings. The team has remained in contention despite the loss of center Al Horford, the leader of the team, to a pectoral injury in mid-January. Horford is not expected to return until the playoffs, if at all this season.
When Teague plays well, the team tends to win. He is averaging 12.0 points, 4.6 assists and 1.7 steals a game, numbers that are higher in victories. But point guards are also judged by the fluidity of the team’s offense and the satisfaction of their teammates, which are trickier to quantify.
“It’s difficult running a team,” Teague said. “You got so many different personalities out there. But that comes with the job. I’ve always been a point guard. I’ve always tried to find ways to relate to everybody. It definitely is tough when you got veterans used to getting the ball a certain number of times, and you hear about when they don’t. But I’m getting better at that.”
Teague, who was selected 19th over all in the 2009 , may be in his third season, but he is essentially a rookie. He averaged about 10 minutes a game, starting three of them, in the 2009-10 season, Mike Woodson’s final year as Atlanta’s head coach. “My rookie year, Coach Woodson told me I wasn’t going to play, straight up,” Teague said. “That was just how he worked. So I respected that.”
Larry Drew replaced Woodson last season, but Teague’s role did not change much until Mike Bibby was traded. Teague’s breakout came in the playoffs. It hardly reached the heights of Linsanity, but Teague had his own unlikely emergence, in the Eastern Conference semifinals against Chicago.
Out of the blue, he averaged 14.8 points and 4.2 assists over six hotly contested games while guarding Derrick Rose as well as could be expected. It seemed the Hawks’ long-sought answer at point guard had been hiding in plain sight: at the end of the bench.
As with the Knicks before Lin, the point guard position has been a void for Atlanta. The Hawks had chances, but for instance drafted forward Marvin Williams over Deron Williams or Chris Paul with the second pick in the 2005 draft (the Bucks took center Andrew Bogut first).
Since then, the Atlanta fan base has groaned as the likes of Bibby, Speedy Claxton and Acie Law have been heralded as the solution at point guard, only to disappoint, while Williams and Paul have built All-Star résumés elsewhere. It is the Peachtree version of Bowie over Jordan or Darko over Carmelo — a miscalculation that has hamstrung the team on the court and at the gate. One might say the only team more haunted by not drafting a point guard in recent years than New York is Atlanta.
At 6 feet 2 inches with long arms covered by tattoos, the willowy Teague does not have the blinding speed and power of Rose or the omniscient court sense of Paul. What he offers is steady, smart play for an often undisciplined team. An alumnus of solid programs like the Indianapolis powerhouse Pike High School and Wake Forest, Teague has a base of hoop smarts that is augmented every day in practice by the Hawks assistant coach Nick Van Exel, who played 13 years in the league at point guard.
Teague’s younger brother, Marcus, is a freshman guard at Kentucky, part of the group of highly recruited players who have the team ranked No. 1. The brothers chat often, with Jeff talking Marcus through the perils of having his every dribble scrutinized by the team’s rabid fans.
“Every time I feel like I have pressure on me, I talk to Marcus,” Teague said, “and he reminds me what playing under pressure is really all about.”
This is a crucial season for the Hawks. The sense is that the franchise has reached a ceiling with the combination of Josh Smith and Joe Johnson and that unless the team can improve on last season’s run to the Eastern Conference semifinals, changes will be made. Much is riding on Teague’s slight shoulders.
His growth and the Hawks’ record have been severely tested on the current road trip, during which they are 1-3. And for a capper, Lin awaits.
“It’s fun to see somebody going through the same thing I went through, then getting his chance and playing really well,” Teague said of Lin. “All you need is that one opportunity to seize your moment, and things can change. I’m happy for him.”
He will be happier if he can introduce Lin to the reality of life in the N.B.A., where for young point guards, the highs are almost always followed by the lows.