ATLANTA — Jeff Teague leads the Atlanta offense.
So does Dennis Schroder.
Sometimes, they do it together.
The point guard tandem is a big reason the Hawks have reached the Eastern Conference final for the first time in franchise history. Top-seeded Atlanta hosts LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 on Wednesday night.
“It doesn’t matter if I’ve got the ball or Jeff’s got the ball,” Schroder said. “We make the game fast.”
Teague has blossomed in coach Mike Budenholzer’s offense, making the All-Star team for the first time this season.
Schroder’s progress has been even more remarkable, the 21-year-old German going from a little-used rookie to a major contributor in his second season.
In the playoffs, the Hawks have looked for more ways to get Teague and Schroder on the court at the same time, giving the team more offensive options at a time when defenses are really clamping down.
Schroder is averaging nearly 20 minutes a game, essentially the same as the regular season, but Teague’s playing average has gone up nearly 2 minutes — a sign of Budenholzer using them more as a package deal.
While using two small guards — Teague is 6-foot-2, Schroder 6-1 — gives the Hawks some problems at the defensive end, the coach is more than willing to take the risk giving what it means to the offense.
“When those two guys play together, it gives you a second player that’s very comfortable, very accustomed, to being in pick-and-rolls with the ball in their hands — trying to get in the paint, attacking the basket, collapsing the defense,”
Budenholzer said after Monday’s practice at Philips Arena. “If it’s helping us, we’ll continue to play them together. I think they’re getting more comfortable together, too, which is helpful.”
While it’s impossible to key on any player in Atlanta’s no-star approach, the Cavaliers will be focused on shutting down the two guys who usually have the ball in their hands.
“Both can break you down on the dribble,” Cleveland coach David Blatt said. “Both can push the ball. Both can get to the rim and create for not only themselves, but for others. They are a handful. Two excellent guards who can play together. That presents another whole set of problems.”
James said it really doesn’t matter who’s at the point for the Hawks.
They’re always looking to run.
“They have guys that push the tempo, starting with Teague and then Schroeder does not let the tempo go down when he comes in,” James said. “We have to understand that, we have to be very aware of that, and match that.”
Teague, the 19th overall pick by the Hawks in 2009, didn’t make an impact right away. Playing his rookie season under Mike Woodson, then three years with Larry Drew as coach, the guard struggled for consistency in offenses that were stagnant and relied heavily on isolation plays. In fact, there was some question about whether the Hawks would — or even should — match a four-year, $32 million offer sheet that Teague got from Milwaukee in 2013.
Atlanta decided to keep Teague, and it turned out to be a wise move when Budenholzer came aboard as coach. No longer would the Hawks be content just standing around, waiting for Joe Johnson or someone else to score. The new coach wanted a point guard who wouldn’t be timid about darting into the lane, who would get everyone involved in the offense off pick-and-rolls, screens and cutting to the basket.
“This system is lot different than the one I was playing in those previous years,” Teague said. “It makes my job a lot easier.”
The same year Teague re-signed, the Hawks drafted Schroder with the 17th pick. Only 19 and adjusting to a new country, it wasn’t really surprising that he barely played at all as a rookie. In a seven-game loss to Indiana in the opening round of the playoffs, he got in only two contests for a total of 7 minutes.
Looking like a long-range project, Schroder worked hard to speed up the process. He played on Atlanta’s summer league team and the German national team. He put in even more time with the assistant coaches, who traveled to Europe to work with him on his shooting and playmaking skills.
“I earned the coaches trust,” Schroder said. “Now I want to keep getting better and better.”