CHICAGO – Six years ago, a slender point guard hit the NBA as a late first-round draft pick out of Kentucky, toting a bag of confidence along that seemed bigger than he was. Rajon Rondo took his lumps on a bad Boston Celtics team for a year, then began his climb through a championship season in 2007-08, all the way to premier status among the league’s playmakers.
Against the Celtics Monday night at Chicago’s United Center, a slender point guard who’d arrived late in the first round from Kentucky, with a similar oversized bag of confidence, stepped onto the floor against the great Rondo. Marquis Teague and his team didn’t win – Boston shot 60 percent in the first half, then protected its lead late for a 101-95 victory – but the kid went breakthrough.
Rondo was lethal, with 20 points on 10-of-16 shooting, nine rebounds, 10 assists and five steals. But Teague played the entire fourth quarter in place of Nate Robinson – both of them were subbing for Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich – and repeatedly had the ball and the game in his hands over the final nine minutes.
“That is the first step,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “[Leandro] Barbosa and Rondo are super-quick. I like that match up for Marquis. He got us playing with energy.”
Through Chicago’s first six games, Teague had logged a total of 10 minutes. In this one, the rookie – he’s listed at a preposterous 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds – played 18, made one of his four shots, got to the line a couple of times, pilfered three rebounds, had two assists and a turnover and scored five points.
He seems more mild-mannered than Rondo, yet was just as oblivious to the pedigree matched up against him. Whether that meant chasing Rondo on the perimeter or taking the ball into the paint strong, right up into Kevin Garnett‘s grill.
“I don’t think it’s any fun to play against Rondo whether you’re a 10-year guy or a 1-year guy,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said. “Y’know, Teague is a tough kid. I’ve watched him play for a long time because him and Austin [Rivers, New Orleans rookie and the coach's son] played AAU against each other. I thought he handled it pretty well.”
No biggie for Teague, whose brother Jeff is the Atlanta Hawks’ starting point guard. Growing up in Indianapolis, Teague faced top competition in and outside his family (Boston’s Courtney Lee, for instance), and of course he was part of Kentucky’s NCAA title team last spring.
“My whole life,” the Chicago guard said when asked if he’d had nights like Monday. “I’m not really fazed by the situation I’m in. It doesn’t matter to me. I’ve played in a lot of big games in my life. So it’s just another game.”
Rondo, now a three-time All-Star and a possible MVP candidate this season, wasn’t surprised by a thing Teague did. Taking it at Garnett? “Nobody’s, like, scared of anyone,” Rondo said. “He went in and attacked the basket. He made the right play.”
Teague even had the temerity to think he was getting an “and-1″ when the whistle blew. But no, he was cited for fending off Garnett with his left arm.
Just following Thibodeau’s orders, Teague said later. Use his speed. Play aggressive.
“My confidence is the same,” he said. “Never [down]. It’s always going to be there. I’m a basketball player. That’s how I feel.”
Competitive as he is, Rondo initially was stingy in assessing Teague’s play. Then he opened up: “He’s been a winner all his life – he won at Kentucky. So I don’t think he’s short on confidence. He was ready when his number was called. He got to the cup a couple of times, drew some fouls in crunch-time minutes. For a player that young, your confidence just grows and grows. I’m sure he’s going to continue to work ‘cuz you never know. Just like Kirk got hurt and D. Rose is out to start…”
Teague’s upside this season is modest enough – he might be angling for a bigger role as one of the Bulls’ placeholders till Rose returns from knee rehab. But Rondo wasn’t taking any chances. The Boston guard said he didn’t offer any tips or wisdom to the fellow former Wildcat.
There is no higher praise.