MINNEAPOLIS – Jeff Teague held the ball 26 feet from the basket with 4 minutes, 38 seconds left in the second quarter of Sunday night’s game against Charlotte at Target Center.
A week ago, the Wolves’ new point guard might have looked to pass, but this time, with his team leading by four, Teague decided that deferring was no longer the answer. Coach Tom Thibodeau had encouraged Teague to shoot more and that’s what he did. His shot was good and gave the Wolves a 48-41 lead.
It also gave Teague the type of confidence the Wolves want him to have as a shooter.
The next time down the floor Teague pulled up from 25 feet in transition and knocked down another three. The announced crowd of 14,124 grew louder as the Wolves’ lead became eight.
A Kemba Walker miss by the Hornets was rebounded by Andrew Wiggins, who fed Teague again. Teague brought the ball down the floor, sized up another scoring opportunity and this time fed Jimmy Butler. Butler, who had encouraged Teague to shoot, hit another three-pointer.
Teague would make one more three before the quarter was out and added a finger roll layup with 29.3 seconds remaining as the Wolves increased their lead to 17 by halftime en route to a 112-94 victory. Teague had 11 of the Wolves 40 points in the second quarter.
“I thought he was terrific,” Thibodeau said of Teague. “His aggressiveness, he shot when he should shoot, he was in the paint making plays. I thought he played a terrific game.”
Said Butler: “(Teague’s) crucial for us on both ends of the floor. He really sets the tone. When he’s playing like that, we’re going to be a really, really good team.”
The victory was the Wolves’ second in two nights – they beat Dallas 112-99 on Saturday night at Target Center – and increased their winning streak to five games.
For the majority of franchises this would be no big deal, but for the Wolves this is a significant accomplishment. Thirteen seasons without a playoff berth will make the routine seem special. The last time the Wolves had a five-game winning streak was from Jan. 2-10, 2009.
Minnesota will attempt to stretch its winning streak to six on Wednesday night at Golden State as it opens a three-game road trip. To find the last time the Wolves won six consecutive games you have to go back to the end of the 2003-04 regular season – that’s the year Minnesota went to the Western Conference finals — when they ran off nine in a row without a defeat. The Wolves 7-3 start is their best since they opened by going 9-1 in 2001-02.
“Who doesn’t want to win? Who doesn’t want to be a part of a winning city and winning organization?” Butler said. “We’ve got to keep playing really good basketball. These teams we’ve got coming up on the road (Golden State, Phoenix and Utah), they’re playing extremely well. We’ve got to go into their house, try to steal some wins and try to keep this city rocking loud and keep this streak going.”
Teague’s play will be a key to whether that success continues.
Thibodeau, who also serves as the Wolves’ basketball boss, never felt that Ricky Rubio was a fit as his point guard, in large part because Rubio’s shooting slumps meant teams often didn’t have to worry about him pulling up and knocking down shots in transition. There were stretches were opponents would dare Rubio to shoot and be happy when he did.
The Wolves traded Rubio and signed Teague to a three-year, $57 million free-agent contract this offseason because his skill set is more suited to what Thibodeau wants from his point guard.
Teague, though, has been trying to find his place in the Wolves’ offense. He entered Sunday averaging 12.9 points and eight assists but it was clear he had more to offer. The Wolves got more against the Hornets as Teague finished with 18 points, making a season-high 4-of-5 three pointers, and dished out 12 assists.
“I finally made some shots,” said Teague, who made 7-of-15 attempts from the field.
Teague’s issue is that he also feels a responsibility to find guys like Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Crawford and Butler when they are on the floor with him. “We’ve got so much talent on this team, so many guys that can do so many things,” Teague said. “I think it’s my role to try to get those guys going. It’s come a little easier for me.”
Thibodeau, who often looks like an impatient man, understands that Teague is trying to get used to playing a role that includes making some tough decisions. Familiarity will help to make that simpler.
“We’re asking guys to make a lot of sacrifices for each other, put the team first, and Jeff is very unselfish,” Thibodeau said. “He wants guys to get shots, he tries to make the right play. I thought he had a good blend (on Sunday). The game was hanging in the balance in the second quarter and he hit three threes that sort of opened it up. When he does that, it puts more pressure on the defense to come up and then that opens up other things.”
On Sunday, it opened up the Wolves’ ability to make a close game an easy victory.