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Examining Jeff Teague’s recent stretch of auspicious play

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The 12-year journeyman’s dribble penetration and facilitating chops have contributed to Boston’s four-game win streak.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Just a fortnight ago, Jeff Teague’s future with Boston hung in the balance — DNPs plagued him for much of February and became commonplace. Brad Stevens replaced Teague’s minutes with more minutes for rookie Aaron Nesmith, who emerged as a fixture in the rotation. Over a six-game span between February 14-23, Nesmith played an average of 23.7 minutes per game. On the other hand, Teague saw the court for just 33 minutes over this stretch.

It wasn’t until a February 24th matchup against the Atlanta Hawks when Teague saw significant minutes again (29), receiving the starting nod in place of Kemba Walker. The latter sat the second night of a back-to-back as a precaution because of a nagging knee injury. Boston fell to Atlanta 112-127, but Teague ended the night as one of the lone bright spots for the Celtics. The 32-year-old tallied 14 points, five assists and went 6-for-6 from the charity stripe.

A perennial starter as recently as last season (13 starts in 34 games with the Minnesota Timberwolves), Teague is, historically speaking, unaccustomed to riding the bench. Instead of letting his then-diminished role irk him, the point guard set his nose to the grindstone.

“I think those DNPs just made me want to go a little harder,” Teague said following Boston’s February 26th victory over the Indiana Pacers. “So I just tried to get some extra reps in and I’m going to continue to keep doing that.”

Teague also admitted the ups-and-downs of this season have been unlike anything he’s ever faced in the pros, but he’s found positives to take away from it all. “It’s been a different experience than I’ve ever been a part of but it’s always a learning experience, take the good with the bad,” Teague said. “I knew it would be an adjustment period. I didn’t think it would be like this but you learn.” These words from Teague accentuate his supreme mental fortitude.

Teague has parlayed a surprise performance versus his former team into a commendable five-game stretch heading into the All-Star break. With per-game splits of 10.6 points (on 60.7% shooting), 2.6 dimes, and 3.6 free-throw attempts since February 24th, Teague capped off the first half of this truncated campaign on a high note. It was arguably his best string of games as a Celtic and one that convincingly highlights how Teague may have found his rhythm for good after an unfruitful beginning to 2020-21.

Over Boston’s last five games, Teague has adopted a newfound mindset to relentlessly and aggressively weave his way to the cup. He’s no longer the speedster he was during his days with the Atlanta Hawks, but Teague still boasts a plethora of sly dribble-drive moves in his stockpile.

Teague’s dribble-drive aptitude resulted in a much-needed bucket during the final quarter of Tuesday’s win over the Los Angeles Clippers. Teague utilizes the nifty stop-and-go move to freeze Paul George in his tracks before darting past him for an uncontested two. Solid recognition by Teague to recognize an ajar painted area and an even better move to shake an elite perimeter defender in George.

Here’s Teague once again employing the patented hesitation dribble to create separation off the bounce, this time against Davis Bertans and the Washington Wizards. Teague wasn’t executing these sorts of plays in the season’s early going. His burst was noticeably lacking, perhaps inevitable considering it’d been 10 months since he touched a basketball.

Teague has lately been picking apart defenses with his slick playmaking as well. In Boston’s most recent win over the Toronto Raptors, Teague connected with Tristan Thompson inside for multiple point-blank looks at the rim. Totaling four assists on the evening, it was Teague’s second-best passing display since February 16th. The two feeds to Thompson on subsequent possessions stood out among the rest of his dishes.

Teague’s new-and-improved burst has aided him on the offensive side of the floor in more ways than one. The two plays above are almost identical. Teague gains a step on his perimeter defender and speeds into the teeth of the defense. Once in the paint, Teague forces Aron Baynes to slide over and provide help. When Teague has Baynes committed, he delivers a timely pass to Thompson, who’s camped in the lane and converts on his patented one-handed hook.

Boston’s bench unit in 2020-21 has been erratic in terms of their scoring production, and that’s putting it kindly. The team ranks 25th in the NBA in bench point per game at just 32.5. A prime reason for this is a shortage of reliable ball-handlers who can create for themselves and others. Aside from overachieving rookie Payton Pritchard, Teague has been the Celtics lone reserve offensive creator as of late. Teague’s recent penchant for collapsing the defense via dribble-penetration can get the reserves back on track by creating additional scoring opportunities, whether that be layups for him or corner threes/bunnies for his teammates.

Marcus Smart’s re-entry to the lineup is on the horizon, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported back in February he plans to make his return following the All-Star break. With this in mind, Teague’s minutes may take a dip compared to weeks prior. Smart will monopolize the available minutes at the guard position — there’s no denying this. But expect Teague to persist in the rotation, even if he’s shoved to the fringe of it. Teague’s skill set is too valuable to banish to the end of the bench, particularly for a Celtics squad lacking sufficient scoring firepower from their reserves.

Teague is starting to operate akin to the player Boston presumed they were getting when they signed him to a deal this past fall. His confidence in green is at an all-time high, and as long as Brad Stevens continues to call Teague’s number with regularity, his recent stretch of auspicious play is sustainable. The Celtics need more of this Jeff Teague should they wish to be playing in June and July.