Suddenly, the Timberwolves locker room is filling with nicknames. One teammate was calling Karl-Anthony Towns “Jebediah” after Towns described himself as “Amish-like.” The Wolves have Jimmy Buckets, J Crossover and now a new contender:
“Jeff’s game thrives off emotion,” Jamal Crawford said. “Don’t let that smooth taste fool you.”
It had been 14 years since the Minnesota Timberwolves played host to a playoff game. They have found their point guards to be less filling for almost that long.
In 2009, the Wolves drafted Jonny Flynn and Ricky Rubio instead of Steph Curry, setting up a near-decade of intrigue at that position that included the drafting of Kris Dunn and Tom Thibodeau’s decision to trade Rubio and sign Jeff Teague.
Saturday night, when the noisy claustrophobia of playoff basketball returned to Target Center, Teague demonstrated why Thibodeau didn’t want to leave well enough alone, why he wanted a physically tough point guard who could make pressure shots and win playoff games.
Teague turned in his most emotional and important performance with the Wolves, thumping his chest and screaming at the crowd in the fourth quarter of a 121-105 victory in Game 3 that ensures the Wolves will board at least one more team charter this season.
Teague hit nine of his 14 shots and three of five three-point attempts, produced eight assists and one turnover against a strong defensive team, and grabbed three rebounds. He played like a starting point guard with positive playoff experience, something none of the other contenders for the position has been able to boast since Sam Cassell was executing awkward dances on the Target Center floor.
“Jeff’s huge,” Jimmy Butler said. “When he’s playing like that, getting everybody involved first of all, and then he can create his shot at any time.
“And when he’s making threes at the clip he was tonight and spreading the floor, he’s the floor general out there.”
Butler acts more like a commander. Teague is quieter by nature and spent much of the season playing a secondary role. Like Rubio, Teague looked unsure of the offensive role of a point guard in Thibodeau’s offense.
That no longer seems to be a problem. Teague became more aggressive when Butler injured his knee late in the season, and looked quite comfortable playing a leading role Saturday against the NBA’s best regular-season team.
He scored nine points in the fourth quarter, six in a sequence that calmed a nervous crowd. After James Harden hit a three-pointer early in the quarter, Teague slashed to the basket, took contact, and finished for a three-point play, then made a three-point shot to cap a 9-0 run that made it 108-90 with 5:37 left.
Jebediah Towns was flexing, and Smooth Taste was smashing his fists into his chest.
“I do that all the time,” Teague said with a sly smile.
The open competition between Teague and Rubio will continue, and it would not be surprising to see Teague body-check Rubio again in the future, as he did in Utah this season. Teague didn’t win the argument Saturday, but he submitted a worthy presentation.
Curry, of course, became a star. Flynn became a bust. Dunn remains intriguing but didn’t work well with Thibodeau. Rubio became the leader of a surprising Jazz team this season and in Game 2 of the playoffs outplayed the remarkable Russell Westbrook.
Saturday night, Teague resubmitted his résumé as a loud crowd waved “Howl Towels.” Charged with playing against two star point guards in Harden and Chris Paul, Teague, Teague looked prepared for the emotional and physical challenges of playoff basketball.
“We’re a young team, in playoff experience,” Teague said. “We’re growing, getting better every game. Tonight, we took a big step. I think we picked up our intensity and played a lot harder. But there’s a long way to go.”
The path grew a little shorter and clearer Saturday night, as Teague helped Minnesota remember how playoff basketball is supposed to feel.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org