From start to finish Tuesday, Jeff Teague had a great game. One of his best this season, certainly. But in the third quarter of the Timberwolves’ victory over the Los Angeles Clippers at Target Center — when the Wolves took control of the game — Teague was in complete charge.
Running the high pick-and-roll with the team’s taller players, Teague spent the quarter penetrating into the paint, and then either finishing himself or passing the ball to a teammate. He was 5-for-5 shooting and dished off four assists in the quarter. Two of those resulted in three-pointers by Andrew Wiggins, and Teague also set up Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson for layups. That final assist, to Gibson, came on a no-look, behind-the-back pass that put the Wolves up 14 points late in the quarter.
It was a virtuoso performance.
“It was a play that was working,” Towns said of the high pick-and-roll, which often left Teague, in the paint, going against Clippers center DeAndre Jordan.
“And that’s because he can shoot,” Towns said of Teague, who scored 20 points with 12 assists Tuesday. “He has that floater. It’s amazing. His ability to go to the basket, and use his trickery and finesse when he’s around the basket? It’s deadly.”
What fans saw Tuesday was the player who made the All-Star Game three seasons ago, the player who has been to the playoffs in each of his first eight NBA seasons.
Teague has played a steady game all season, averaging 13.9 points with 7.1 assists. But, in the 10 games since Jimmy Butler went down with a knee injury, Teague has taken an aggressive step up. In those 10 games — during which the Wolves have gone 5-5 against a difficult stretch of the schedule, Teague has averaged 17.8 points and 7.5 assists. In his past three games? Teague has scored 19.7 points on 19-for-37 shooting, hit five of eight three-pointers and averaged 10.3 assists.
He has been at his freelancing best. The key, perhaps, will be maintaining that approach when Butler returns.
“This guy’s been doing it a long time,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “You’ve got to give him rope to do the things he does well — getting into the paint and making plays is something he’s great at. You have to give him the ability to make decisions. He’s reading the game great. He’s getting guys into rhythm.”
That was certainly true Tuesday. Of Teague’s 12 assists, 10 resulted either in a three-pointer (four) or a layup/dunk (six). When the team was rolling in the third quarter? Of their 12 made baskets, all but one came early in the shot clock. That suggests an aggressive offense operating in a rhythm.
“KAT’s ability to shoot the ball and stretch the defense gave me the opportunity to play a lot of pick-and-roll,” Teague said. “We knew DeAndre was going to sit back. That’s where I’m comfortable, something I’ve been doing for most of my career.”
Teague said his first thought coming off a pick is to score, and his ability to score over bigger players makes him a threat. But, if the defense collapses, Teague can find the open man. Especially when the play begins with a Towns pick.
“It’s his ability to shoot,” Teague said. “He can late roll, or he can pop. His ability to stretch the defense, that gives me the opportunity to pick and choose where I want to go.”
The key will be to keep Teague in attack mode when Butler returns. It was in early February when Teague acknowledged he was sacrificing some of his game in an offense where Butler often dominated on the ball.
In the past 10 games, with Butler on the mend, Towns has come on strong as a fourth-quarter threat and Wiggins’ aggressiveness has taken a step up as well.
The team’s offense has continued to score thanks in large part to Teague. Earlier in the season it appeared Teague was deferring at times, especially to Butler. It will be interesting to see how his recent play can accommodate Butler’s return.
“Jeff is playing at an incredibly high level,” Thibodeau said.