WASHINGTON—Jeff Teague will never admit it—no Atlanta player will—but the constant buzz about John Wall’s health has to be irritating. Will he play? Wizards coach Randy Wittman can’t enter a reporter’s airspace without getting hit with that one. Does the game plan change if he does? Hawks players rarely go a day or two without answering some Wall-related question. It’s as if Wall is basketball’s Terminator, waiting to shed his splint and singlehandedly scuttle top-seeded Atlanta’s championship dreams.
Maybe it’s because the Hawks haven’t done enough to make Washington pay for Wall’s absence. In Game 2, with Wall shelved with—stop me if you have heard this already—five non-displaced fractures in his left hand and wrist, Teague submitted a nine-point, eight-assist effort; he was better in Game 3, posting 18 points and seven assists, but still shot 33% from the floor.
Teague is an All-Star, a 15.9 points-per-game scorer during the regular season, a 46% shooter, an seven assist per night playmaker. Atlanta needed him to be better.
On Monday, he was.
In Game 4, with the Hawks down 2-1 in the series, with the season effectively in the balance, Teague showed up. He scored 26 points on 45% shooting. He handed out eight assists against just one turnover. He knifed through Washington’s defense effortlessly, chipping in a large chunk of Atlanta's startling 48 points in the paint, spearheading a 106-101 Hawks win in Game 4. Staring down Ramon Sessions and Will Bynum, Teague, with an assist from his backup, Dennis Schroder, took over.
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“Sometimes you feel like you are shooting too much or doing too much,” Teague said. “But sometimes you have to do that.”
Entering Game 4, Atlanta had a clear agenda: Attack. The jump shot happy Hawks had fallen a little too in love with the jumper for Mike Budenholzer’s liking in the first three games of the series. Sunday’s film session was focused on pointing out missed opportunities, on imploring the guards to go to the rim. Everywhere, from everyone, the message was the same. “Coach likes three’s,” Schroder said. “But me and Jeff have to attack the basket first.”
[daily_cut.nba]They did, and wouldn’t you know the Hawks were successful. Behind Teague and Schroder (14 points, eight assists) Atlanta played one of its best offensive games of the postseason. Al Horford (18 points) got his midrange game going. Paul Millsap (19 points), back in the starting lineup, got better looks, too. The Hawks made 47.1% of their shots, connected on 47.4% of their three’s, all with sharpshooter Kyle Korver (six points) minimally involved.
“We were in attack mode the whole night,” Teague said. “Everyone was just being aggressive, trying to make plays.”
The Teague-Schroder pairing, an oft-utilized lineup in Atlanta during the regular season, has been used sparingly in the playoffs. That’s likely to change after Monday, after Teague and Schroder wreaked havoc on the Wizards backcourt, pick-and-rolling Washington to death, making gutsy passes, knocking down big shots.
Schroder is 21, in his second year, but there are strong signs of a special talent. Failure doesn’t rattle him. In the third quarter, Schroder airmailed a lead pass to Horford. A few plays later, Schroder lobbed another pass to Horford, who dunked it in traffic. A risky pass in a critical playoff game just a few possessions after coughing it up; many young players would hesitate. Schroder didn’t for a second.
There is an strong chemistry between Teague and Schroder. Before the game, both understood the need for an aggressive effort. “I kept telling Jeff, ‘Keep going,’ [and] he was telling me the same thing,” Schroder said. “It was motivation for us. I was telling him, ‘Go to the basket, they can’t stop you.’”
Atlanta will go home now with new life and, perhaps, a new formula for success. Sessions and Bynum can’t keep Teague and Schroder in front of them—Wall may not be able to, either. If there were ever a time for Wall to pull a Willis Reed, to slap a soft splint on that left hand and play, it’s now. Washington has played remarkably well in his absence, getting contributions from the ageless Paul Pierce and rapidly emerging star Bradley Beal. But Wall is the Wizards' engine, the ball-dominating guard who everyone’s offense flows from. It’s hard to see Washington taking two out of the next three without him.
Sitting in front of his locker, dressed and ready to beat a path out of D.C., Schroder let slip a few smiles. For so long this series has been about one point guard. For one night anyway, it was about the two in the Atlanta locker room, a trend Schroder hopes continues. “[Playing together] was [part] of why we were successful during the regular season,” Schroder said. “I think it works well. I hope we keep doing it.”