While Doc Rivers spent the week raving about his close relationship with Danny Ainge and their collaboration on many of the deals that built the Celtics, there was one deal they didn’t agree on.
It was the trade nearly three years ago that sent Rivers favorite Kendrick Perkins, along with Nate Robinson, to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic, and a first-round draft pick. It’s not that Rivers didn’t want the athletic and promising Green, but he adored Perkins and his defensive presence.
Ainge was convinced an ailing Shaquille O’Neal along with Jermaine O’Neal would adequately replace Perkins in the middle, and banked on Green developing into a starter to replace Paul Pierce. Rivers rode Green during their 2½ years together, imploring him to be more aggressive, take open jumpers, and rebound with vigor.
In front of his former coach Wednesday night at TD Garden, Green did those things against the Clippers. He finished with a game-high 29 points in the Celtics’ 96-88 loss, showing Rivers that his encouragement to improve and become more selfish indeed had registered.
Green has averaged 20 points in his last 12 games, embracing his role as the team’s primary scorer. He took quick advantage of his matchup Wednesday night against undersized Jared Dudley, the former Boston College standout who stood little chance stopping the 6-foot-9-inch Green.
The book on Green when he came to Boston was that he was maddeningly inconsistent, with the ability to dominate a game against a team like Miami, and then score 6 points against Milwaukee the next night, which has proven to be true. Rivers is considered a players’ coach, but he isn’t easy to play for. He is brutally honest with his players, especially concerning their capabilities and skills.
He chided Green for his passiveness, lauded Green for his perseverance after surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm that caused him to miss the 2011-12 season, and pushed Green to respond last season when Pierce and Kevin Garnett were showing signs of age, starting him at shooting guard in the second half of the season.
“What he has become is a dual player,” Rivers said. “I remember the first year, I thought we messed him up. I kept saying that, trying to put him back and forth at [power forward], at [small forward]. In retrospect, we should have started him either at [power forward] or [small forward] and let him grow into being able to do both. Now, he can do either. We were talking as a staff, now preparing for him, and we were trying to decide what was he better at. It’s really good to see him progress, starting to rebound finally. He’s just being consistent, and that’s important.”
Green seemed unemotional about facing Rivers’s team. Rivers has known Green since his days at Georgetown when he played with Rivers’s son Jeremiah. The relationship is nearly a decade old, but it was difficult to determine whether Green was hardened by constant needling from Rivers or just angry about Wednesday night’s loss.
Rivers wasn’t the lone Celtic to urge Green to be more of an alpha male. His veteran teammates pleaded with him to take more of a commanding role, especially with Pierce and Garnett aging. It happened toward the end of the 2012-13 regular season, and the postseason, when Green emerged as the Celtics’ best player.
But the prospect of Green as the central figure of the Celtics this season wasn’t enough to encourage Rivers to stay in Boston. Green is the best player on an improving but retooling team, and Rivers wanted to contend for titles.
Still, he has noticed Green’s ascension from afar and regrets his inability to get the most out of that talent.
“You’re going to be tentative when you have [Rajon] Rondo, Paul, Kevin, and Ray [Allen] on your basketball team,” Rivers said. “That’s just natural, to want to fit in. Now he looks at this team and this is his team. He has to take change and be aggressive, and he’s doing that.”
After a difficult transition following the trade, when pressure was on Green to make fans forget the Perkins’s impact, he grew more comfortable last season despite the presence of the Big Three. This season, coach Brad Stevens has made him the focal point of the offense.
“That’s the key word, just being comfortable,” Green said. “Last year, I was put in a position where it was my first time actually playing my real position [small forward] and I wasn’t comfortable. This year, I’m a lot more comfortable, being aggressive, taking my shot when it’s there. I’m going to continue to shoot.”
Rivers may not have liked the team he was going to coach this season had he stayed in Boston, but there remains talent. The Celtics’ starting five, all of whom played for Rivers, scored 84 of the team’s 88 points Wednesday night. And it was obviously that quintet that wanted to show the old coach they were worthy of building around.
It didn’t result in a victory, but those Rivers holdovers proved their point, especially Green, who appears to be emerging into that cornerstone Ainge desired.