Maybe you watched the Atlanta Falcons’ Monday Night Football opener with the Philadelphia Eagles the other day. Good game. The new-look Falcons stormed out to a 20-3 halftime cushion. But in typical Atlanta fashion, palms got sweaty in crunch time and the Birds lost their lead. Down 24-23 in the middle of the fourth quarter, you could almost feel the ATL collectively fall back on the couch in disgust.
The city’s seen this show on Netflix far too many times—bright lights come on, local teams fall off. But on September 14, the Falcons flipped the proverbial script, gritting out a 26-24 victory on national TV.
The Hawks weren’t so fortunate on the big stage a few months ago. In an Eastern Conference Finals match-up with a Cleveland Cavaliers squad that essentially amounted to King James and his band of merry men, Atlanta was cruelly swept in four games, losing the embarrassing clincher by 30 points. Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith laughed. You probably did, too. The series really was a mess.
But in between “There goes Atlanta just being Atlanta” chuckles, we sure hope you noticed the work Hawks point guard Jeff Teague was putting in. It’s almost like the young man was on a personal mission not to be the butt of any of Shaquille O’Neal jokes. As the stage got larger, JT’s game got more lethal. Teague averaged 14.2 points in the conference quarterfinals and 16.3 in the semis. But in the finals, he went for 21.5 a night. Hell, in Game 3, his 30/7/6 was almost enough for a win.
Unfortunately, “almost” won’t get the Hawks out from under the city’s merciless cloud of flops, underachievements and one-year wonders. For that to happen, the Teague we saw in the East finals is the same Teague we have to see during the regular season.
Jeff’s on the SLAM Top 50 list for the first time in his six-year career because we feel he’s ready to do just that. Blessed with speed, strength and the slithery nature of a death adder, Jeff has the tools to consistently bite opponents in the ass. Because he’s pretty damn smart, he also knows the best time to cross over Matthew Dellavedova or dish it off to Kyle Korver.
And speaking of Mr. Korver, some of Teague’s 2015-16 success depends on his health. Jeff can break down defenses all he wants (and he usually does), but if the ‘15 All-Star doesn’t have a capable shooter to pass it off to regularly, the empty possessions are going to add up.
Another teammate with a lot to say about Teague’s upcoming season is fellow PG Dennis Schröder. If brilliant EuroBasket 2015 performances of 26, 29 and 24 points don’t say it, allow us to translate—the kid from Germany can straight up ball.
While we’re far from saying there’s a positional controversy brewing in Philips Arena, you’d be crazy not to think Schröder’s evolving game doesn’t affect Teague in some fashion. In this case, though, it’s strictly a positive one.
When these two were on the court at the same time last year—Dennis was at the 1 and Teague patrolled the wing—good things generally happened. We fully expect that wrinkle to show up a few more times from head coach Mike Budenholzer in the approaching campaign.
But while Coach Bud will do all he can to further develop Teague and the other youngsters on the roster, he nor anyone else really knows what to expect from these Hawks. With the loss of DeMarre Carroll to the Raptors, the rehab of Korver and the pending legal situations with Thabo Sefolosha and Mike Scott, who knows if Atlanta will compete for the second seed or the seventh?
Sadly, if the team falls back into its usual mundane lane, no one will be terribly surprised. That’s simply a reality the city has to live with. But if still-budding Jeff Teague isn’t on the East’s All-Star roster by the time Ernie Johnson and the rest of the TNT panel goes live from Toronto, we’ll be completely shocked.
|SLAM Top 50 Players 2015|
Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2015-16—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.