Jeff Teague could have undermined Hawks’ success. He’s glad they didn’t let him

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BOSTON – Jeff Teague strolled through the Hawks’ locker room, joking with Al Horford about binging on a pregame meal (an indulgence Teague could make while sitting out the game before, something Horford was doing this night) and playfully tapping another teammate’s iPad screen as he passed.

Then, Teague returns to his locker, where he’d explain what makes these Atlanta Hawks so special.

“We have fun. We enjoy it,” Teague said Wednesday. “Guys really like one another. We hang out all time. We go out to eat. We enjoy each other’s company.”

Plenty of teams tout their off-court chemistry, and it’s essentially impossible for outsiders to gauge the veracity of those claims. But the Hawks click so well on the court, it’d be difficult to believe they’re not close off it.

The Hawks are the NBA’s feel-good story. They’ve won 10 straight and 24 of 26 since Thanksgiving to raise their record to an Eastern Conference-best 31-8. They’re playing so well, the franchise’s two (!) mostly distinct offseason racism scandals have faded to the background. Teague, Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll mesh well in the starting lineup, and Thabo Sefolosha, Dennis Schroder, Pero Antic, Mike Scott, Shelvin Mack and Kent Bazemore hit the right notes of the bench. Mike Budenholzer is building a strong case for Coach of the Year.

This team just works in every way.

But just two summers ago, Teague nearly broke up this group before it achieved its current near-perfect harmony.

Teague, a restricted free agent in a stalemate with the the Hawks, signed a four-year, $32 million offer sheet with the Bucks. He even said he preferred Atlanta not match.

“It was a tactic to get a deal done,” Teague admitted. “I always wanted to be an Atlanta Hawk.”

Teague got his wish. The Hawks matched, and he said he was happy in Atlanta.

In truth, the Hawks probably weren’t that close to letting him leave. Budenholzer, hired that same offseason, said he was substantially involved in the team’s internal discussions after Milwaukee presented the offer sheet.

“I think it was easy,” Budenholzer said. “We were very, very excited to match and keep him.

“He’s such a gifted and talented player. I think we all appreciate his skill, his combination of strength and quickness and speed. And then he’s a great person. He fits in our locker room. He’s somebody that we wanted to work with and continue to help to grow and to improve. And it’s worked out well for both of us, hopefully.”

It sure has.

Teague is having the best season of his career, averaging 17.5 points, 7.2 assists and 1.8 steals per game. His PER of 23.1 ranks No. 13 in the NBA and fifth among point guards (behind only Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry).

Not that many have paid attention.

Teague is the best player who hasn’t cracked the All-Star starter voting leaderboard.

“He’s just doing a lot of things, and I think a lot of kind of little things that maybe go unnoticed,” said Budenholzer, who specifically mentioned Teague’s pick-and-roll defense and off-ball activity. “Everybody sees the points and the assists and all of those other things, but I think he’s competing at a high level.

“All the minutiae that us coaches spend hours on watching film – you can see it and feel it.”

That’s why Teague, despite his lack of fan support, has a good chance of becoming an All-Star when coaches vote on the reserves.

Teague says it’s most important the Hawks’ early success earns them at least one All-Star, no matter who it is. And if it’s him?

“That’d be great,” Teague said. “That’s like the highest honor you can get besides winning a championship in the NBA, so I’d be stoked to get that.”

Teague obviously hasn’t heard my case that All-NBA should weigh much more heavily than All-Star when assessing someone’s career accomplishments. Regardless, he’s quite possibly in store for an achievement that unquestionably ranks higher: MVP votes.

Since the NBA began awarding MVP in 1956, 117 of 118 No. 1 seeds have had a player make someone’s MVP ballot.* And the Hawks are in strong position to land the No. 1 seed. They have a four-game lead over the second-place Wizards and a chance to increase their buffer over the pack tonight against the third-place Raptors and tomorrow against the fourth-place Bulls.

*The 1969-70 Hawks are the only exception. None their top players – Bill Bridges, Lou Hudson, Joe Caldwell, Mahdi Abdul-Rahman, Jim Davis and Gary Gregor – got MVP votes. Willis Reed, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Walt Frazier, Billy Cunningham and Connie Hawkins claimed all those.

Horford and Millsap should figure prominently for anyone looking to assign credit for Atlanta’s growth, but Teague’s status as floor general will generate support.

After years of the Hawks imploring him to take control, Teague has. Atlanta performs better offensively and defensively when he’s on the court, and though playing frequently with the team’s other starters partially explains that, he’s driving a lot of the production. He’s still one of the NBA’s quickest players, but he’s capitalizing more on his ability to blow by opponents and tilt defenses. On the other end, he does a much better job of sticking with his man while still finding opportunities to get steals.

The little improvements across the board are adding up.

Teague’s PER has increased each of his six seasons. Only four current players – Mo Williams, Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett – have completed a six-season run of ascending PERs. Mike Conley, Stephen Curry, James Harden and DeAndre Jordan are also on pace to do it this year, but Teague has the most room for error over his PER from last season.

Here’s how Teague’s PER has progressed:

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“That’s the only goal I ever set at the beginning of each season, just to get better than the previous year,” Teague said. “If I can do that, I know I’m have a good year.”

By that measure, Teague is having a good year. By others – an All-Star appearance, MVP votes, playoff success – Teague is on track to hit the mark, as well.

As he continues along this career season, Teague is grateful the Hawks ignored his request two years ago.

“I thought about that a couple weeks ago, if I was in Milwaukee right now,” Teague said. “But I’m glad to be here with Atlanta. I’m happy with how we’re playing. The group we have here is so talented and so unselfish and fun to play with.”

He’s a huge reason.

Watch Giannis Antetokounmpo go off for 32 points, 13 boards, lead Bucks rout of Thunder

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MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 32 points and 13 rebounds and the Milwaukee Bucks surged to a 24-point lead in the second quarter in a 133-86 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night.

The 47-point loss was the Thunder’s worst of the season.

Chris Paul scored 18 points for Oklahoma City.

Both teams were without their second-leading scorers. Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton was a late scratch with a sore neck. An ankle injury kept Thunder forward Danilo Gallinari out.

The Bucks had won four in a row and the Thunder had won five straight.

The Bucks built their second-quarter lead behind 14 second-quarter points from Antetokounmpo, seven from Donte DiVincenzo, who started in place of Middleton, and back-to-back 3-pointers from Wesley Matthews.

A key moment occurred late in the second period.

With Milwaukee leading, 54-43, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer got a technical foul after approaching a referee during a timeout with 3:43 left in the quarter. That was moments after Eric Bledsoe was called for a charging foul that irked Budenholzer. After that, the Bucks went on a 17-4 run and led 71-47 at halftime.

Milwaukee outrebounded Oklahoma City, 67-36.

The Bucks made a season-high 21 3-pointers. The Thunder were 6 for 35 on 3-pointers.

Giannis Antetokounmpo shrugs off James Harden dig: ‘I’m just trying to do my job’

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There is some meat to the James Harden/Giannis Antetokounmpo beef.

Harden was pissed Antetokounmpo won Most Valuable Player over him last year and vented about it. When it came to this year’s All-Star Game, captian Antetokounmpo drafted Kemba Walker over Harden while joking he wanted someone who’d pass. After his team lost the All-Star Game, Antetokounmpo said his team’s strategy was to get the ball to whomever Harden was guarding and attack.

Harden ramped up the skirmish of words Friday when speaking to Rachel Nichols of ESPN, saying:

“I wish I could just run, run and was 7-feet and run and just dunk. That takes no skill at all. I’ve got to actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill.”

Antetokounmpo decided to let it die when ESPN asked pregame about what Harden said.

“I’m not the type of guy to take stabs at somebody. … I’m just trying to do my job which is win games and go back home to my family. At the end of the day, if that’s what he believes that’s what he believes. I can’t say anything about it. I’ve just got to keep being focused.”

If you’re circling dates on your calendar, March 25 is what you’re looking for, the day the Bucks host the Rockets.

Harden should believe he is the best player in the game — you don’t get to be where he is without that level of confidence. Antetokounmpo should believe the same thing about himself. We could say the same things about LeBron James, Luka Doncic, and a host of others. It’s part of what makes them great, and not a surprise.

If the MVP thing is eating at Harden he might not like this season’s outcome any better. While I haven’t done a poll, most voters I’ve spoken to have The Beard third behind Antetokounmpo and LeBron James. There’s still more than six weeks of basketball before votes are cast — and the Rockets as a team are surging — but right now, the Greek Freak looks like a repeat winner from what I am hearing.

Rockets protested game despite Tilman Fertitta’s dissent

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta
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Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta talks big about his devotion to winning.

But when Houston had a chance to turn a loss into a victory by protesting due to an uncounted James Harden dunk, Fertitta balked.

Fertitta, via Kirk Bohls of Statesman:

“That’s my basketball people who got mad at ’em. Honestly, I don’t think we should have filed the protest because honestly we blew the 22-point lead. But if something is important to my players and basketball ops people, I give them a lot of leeway.”

I wonder whether Fertitta would have publicly shared his stance if the protest succeeded. I also wonder whether how supported Fertitta’s basketball employees feel considering he’s publicly revealing that he wasn’t on their side.

But this is actually one of the more encouraging stories of Fertitta’s ownership. He allowed room for debate. He listened to the other side. He posted the $10,000 protest fee.

It didn’t pay off this time, but that’s how good owners operate.

As expected, Rockets sign veteran Jeff Green for remainder of season

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Before they committed fully, Houston signed free agent Jeff Green to a 10-day contract. They just wanted to make sure the veteran forward was a fit in their small-ball system.

It turns out, he was a perfect fit.

Through four games, playing a little more than 19 minutes a game, Green averaged 9.8 points a game on a ridiculous 89.6 true shooting percentage. That’s not sustainable (he’s shooting 61.5 percent from three), but it was enough for the Rockets to sign Green for the remainder of the season, something the team announced Friday.

Green, at 6’8″, played on the wing most of his career. However, with the Rockets he backs up P.J. Tucker at center.

Green started the season a member of the Utah Jazz, but the fit there was not as clean. While he averaged 7.7 points per game in 30 appearances, the Jazz ultimately waived him to create a roster spot for Rayjon Tucker.

This contract only runs through the end of this season, but the Rockets could re-sign Green for next season, if the sides agree this summer. For now, the focus is on the Rockets’ hot streak and building on that as the league moves toward the postseason.