Then things happen. Screens, re-screens, help defense, escape dribbles, look-aways, passes -- with every event, the value of the possession gets a little better or worse, in increments that companies such as Vantage Sports track carefully. When a point guard navigates one good decision after another, the result can be a possession that ends with somebody in such great position -- whether that's Kyle Korver in the corner, or Paul Millsap alone under the rim -- that the value of the possession has essentially doubled.
Hawks point guard Jeff Teague says he remembers the play in the video above well -- and not just because Cleveland's Kyrie Irving grabbed Teague's arm, causing him to nearly lose the ball. Instead, he remembers splitting the defenders in the high screen-roll -- it was the first time anyone had split a Timofey Mozgov screen all season -- and then rolling to the hoop thinking through his options.
Teague says his first thought is always to get to the rim, but Kevin Love came to stop that, and despite a bad defensive reputation, the numbers suggest the injured Cav makes a positive difference at this end of the court. Love ranks second among all NBA power forwards in Vantage's "effective help" rate, which is the percentage of help attempts that lead directly to a well-contested shot, deflection, tie-up, offensive foul, denied pass or turnover.
With Al Horford trailing the play and Korver effectively removed from it by J.R. Smith, Teague is left leading a game of 3-on-2 against Love and LeBron James. Teague finds it tough to sneak passes by James in general, and Vantage stats indicate it's freakishly difficult for shooters to make shots when James is the defender closing out.
"Of 70 small forwards who get regular minutes," reports Vantage's Chase Exon, "LeBron James ranks first in closeout points allowed, allowing only 1.73 points per 100 closeout opportunities, making it pretty unlikely [DeMarre] Carroll could even get a shot off here."
So Teague uses a head fake and lean to get James thinking the play is going to the left wing. With Love tracking Teague, and James misled into thinking the action is headed for Carroll, Teague has everyone where he wants them, creating a perfect high-value scoring opportunity for Millsap.
Great decisions aren't always the most heroic highlight moments of games -- highlights tend to focus on unlikely buckets, and good decision-making is about likely ones. But plays like this one from Teague exist in the upper atmosphere of team efficiency, and that's precisely where games are won.