ATLANTA – If the Hawks were looking for a bruiser, a goon, a bona-fide lip buster even, they could have found someone who fit the profile better than Jeff Teague.
Ivan Johnson, Johan Petro, Mike Scott, DeShawn Stevenson and Dahntay Jones would all get the part over Teague in an open casting call for the role of NBA enforcer. The wiry strong but slight Teague would get laughed out of the audition.
Yet there he was Saturday night at Philips Arena, delivering the symbolic and very real elbow to the back of Indiana Pacers’ bully David West, with seven minutes to play in the first half of a game the Hawks dominated from three minutes in until the finish. Their 90-69 blowout win in Game 3 of this first playoff series not only allowed the Hawks the bounce back effort needed after two rough road losses to start the postseason, but also served as a statement game for Teague and his teammates.
They were up 21 when West shoved Al Horford to the ground on a fast break, earning a Flagrant 1 foul for his lick. Something had to be done. Teague knew it and didn’t hesitate. His instincts just kicked in.
“Well, kinda” he said, rubbing his low-cut mohawk. “I thought the play he made wasn’t right. So I had to let him know we were going to be there, that we’re not going to back down from anybody. I think that’s the same way they play. They try to be very physical and tough about it. And David West is a strong guy. He plays hard and plays physical. But I think we met the challenge tonight.”
For this one night the Hawks did exactly that, extending the Pacers’ losing streak at Philips Arena to 12 straight games, regular and postseason combined.
The Hawks held the Pacers to a new franchise playoff low 27-percent shooting, the previous low set against the Pacers in 1994. The 30 points they allowed in the first half sets a new franchise playoff record, and the 69 points allowed in the game is tied for the second-lowest mark in franchise playoff history.
Horford dusted himself off after that shove from West and roasted the Pacers for career-playoff highs in points (26) and assists (16), joining Dikembe Mutombo and Moses Malone as the only Hawks since the 1986-87 season to 25 or more points and 15 or more rebounds in a playoff game.
The Hawks used a 42-10 run to stagger the Pacers in a fight that was over by halftime. Hawks coach Larry Drew made his adjustment, a lineup change for the bigger with Petro instead of Kyle Korver, and Josh Smith locked in defensively on Pacers All-Star Paul George — it worked to perfection.
But the biggest adjustment was in attitude. They refused to be pushed around for a third straight game by West, Roy Hibbert and the rest of the Pacers.
Horford couldn’t believe it when he realized that it realized that Teague was the first responder on that shove from West.
For the record, Horford said he thought West’s play was a hard foul but not anything dirty. It wouldn’t have mattered by then anyway. The Hawks left Indianapolis desperate for a win; desperate to show their home crowd that the team they saw on screen in Games 1 and 2 was not the team that would show up for this one; desperate to shut up the critics who bash them, rightfully mind you, for being such an inconsistent bunch.
Horford said he was going to work the way he did Saturday night no matter what anyone else said or tried to do about it.
“I was just being aggressive, playing with a lot of energy,” he said, crediting the circumstance and the late-arriving but raucous home crowd equally for energizing his team. “My teammates did a good job time and time again of getting me easy baskets. They were finding me whether it was off help or drive and kick. Defensively, I just wanted to set the tone and be more aggressive. I go out there with that same mindset every game. Tonight, I had to step up and make some plays on the offensive end.”
Smith served in a similar capacity on the defensive end, limiting George’s opportunities and effectiveness early by confining the Pacers’ best offensive player to a small patch of real estate on the wing and limiting his forays into the paint to a minimum.
“I just tried to keep a body on him, knowing and understanding that he is the focal point on the perimeter, as far as what they do offensively,” Smith said. “I just tried to stay engaged, tried to be elusive a little bit as far as pin downs were concerned. That was pretty much the game plan.”
Teague and Devin Harris did their part, too, thoroughly outplaying their counterparts in blue (George Hill and Lance Stephenson) on a night when the Hawks’ starters combined to shoot just 6-for-26 from the floor.
“This team has done something it’s done all year long, and that’s respond,” Drew said. “After two losses in Indiana, and coming home … I really felt we would respond. We came out early and the energy was there. We had some guys that played tremendous tonight. It all started with Josh Smith. I thought his effort on Paul George really set the tone for the game. George is such a terrific player. He’s really elusive off the dribble, and to throw a guy like Josh, who has the versatility to defend all five positions … I thought Josh really set the tone.
“The other guy I thought did a phenomenal job defensive was Jeff Teague. He got a couple of fouls early, but I thought he did a really good job in defending George Hill. The first two games of the series, George Hill has really played well. He’s shot the ball extremely well, but tonight I thought our guys took the defensive challenge. Our defense was the thing that really got us going.”
The defense, energy, resilience and refusal of at least one man to see the Pacers kick sand in the Hawks faces anymore. The Hawks shut the Pacers down offensively and turned them over (22 for 24 points) enough to blow the game open and keep West, Hibbert and George from capitalizing on their obvious size advantage.
“I thought they beat us at each position tonight; not with the different lineup that they played,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “We didn’t take care of the ball very well. When you don’t screen with physicality and you don’t separate out of those screens, and don’t execute your sets, and let the other team take your airspace, it’s going to leave you with a poor shooting night and a lot of turnovers.”
Wherever the physicality of the series goes from here, Game 4 Monday night promises to be another bruiser, Smith insists the Hawks are ready.
“Yeah, it’s the playoffs. Adrenaline is flowing and emotions are running high,” he said. “It is going to get a little chippy, especially down there in the paint. The bigs for Indiana, they play a physical game and all we’re trying to do is match their physicality and exceed it a little bit. We’re not backing down from anything and it should be a pretty good series.”
We know Teague is already locked in and ready to go.
“We’re not backing down from anybody,” Teague said, “No matter what.”