When Jeff Teague found out he was being traded from the Atlanta Hawks to the Indiana Pacers last June, the Indianapolis native couldn’t contain his excitement. When he got the news, he and his brother, Marquis, celebrated.
“We just got hyped,” Teague told me last summer. “We started laughing and cheering and stuff. It was good news.”
Teague lived in Indianapolis all the way through high school and then decided to attend Wake Forest University. Ten years after he left, he returned as a former first-round pick and NBA All-Star. Nearly one year after the three-team trade, Teague is still enjoying his homecoming.
“It’s been easy for me because I love being home and I love Indianapolis,” Teague said last week. “The fans have always been great to me and the city has always embraced me. I like being close to my family most of the time and having everybody at the games, and I enjoy being around Indianapolis throughout the whole year. It’s been cool.”
This season, Teague emerged as one of the Pacers’ most important players. The 28-year-old averaged 15.3 points, 7.8 assists, 4 rebounds and 1.2 steals, while shooting 44.2 percent from the field, 35.7 percent from three-point range and 86.7 percent from the free-throw line. Teague was also incredibly durable, becoming one of only five players in the NBA to start all 82 games this season.
It took some time for Teague to get acclimated and learn his new teammates’ tendencies, but he still managed to finish the season as one of the top facilitators in the league. He ranked seventh in assists per game (7.8), seventh in secondary assists (1.5), seventh in potential assists (15.4), seventh in points created by assists (18.1) and ninth in assist percentage (36.4 percent).
“The first month of the season was pretty rough,” Teague said. “I was adjusting to a new team, a new everything, but we got better as a group as the season went on. It was tough, but I’m pretty locked in now. I know where guys are comfortable on the floor and what guys can do. It took a while – there are so many talented guys on this team – but now we’re comfortable.”
After the Pacers struggled a bit earlier this season, Teague cited a team meeting as the main reason for Indiana’s turnaround and his decision to take on more of a distributor role.
“We had a meeting where we talked about sacrifices,” Teague said. “Everybody wants to score. I had a meeting with some of the coaches and they said, ‘You have to sacrifice, Paul [George] has to sacrifice, everybody has to sacrifice something because we have a really talented group.’ I didn’t need to go try to score more points, I needed to be a facilitator – getting guys open and getting guys easy shots. Once I figured that out, I think we started playing a little better.”
The revitalized Pacers won 42 games and secured the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. After the All-Star break, George stepped up in a big way and averaged 26.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.7 steals while shooting 49 percent from the field and 41 percent from three.
“He’s a talent; he’s one of the most special players in the NBA,” Teague said of George. “It took a minute for us to get to know each other on the floor, but once we started to jell, I could see how easy the game is for him and how easy he makes things for everyone around him. He can score in bunches and score in every way. He makes my job so much easier. I just try to push the ball, and give him the ball where he’s comfortable. And people never leave him, so I get easy drives to the lane and things like that. He’s playing great right now.”
The Cleveland Cavaliers currently lead the Pacers, 2-0, in their first-round series. With that said, Indiana stuck around in both games – missing a potential game-winner in the first contest and losing the second game by just six points.
George is averaging 30.5 points, 7 assists, 6.5 rebounds and 1 steal, while shooting 48.7 percent from the field and 55.6 percent from three. Teague is averaging 19 points, 4 assists and 3 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field, 50 percent from three and 100 percent from the free-throw line.
It’s clear that Cleveland has some issues they’re still working through and Indiana will be a tough out, especially as the series shifts to Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“We have to play with an edge defensively, get out and run, and keep playing hungry,” Teague said. “That’s what we did to close the season [with five straight wins]. We still have a chance to shock the world.”