After a 2-point third quarter in Monday night’s 104-92 loss to the Rockets, Jeff Green headed to the bench with 2:09 left in the period, replaced by Gerald Wallace. As the Celtics attempted to rally from a 20-point second-half deficit, Green, the Celtics’ $9 million-per-year player, once thought of as a cornerstone, sat stoically at the end of the bench.
With his team desperately trying to snap out of its malaise, break a losing streak, and regain lost confidence, Green finished with 4 points on 2-for-10 shooting. It was yet another game in which Green’s contributions were desperately needed but were not there, and he is living up to the reputation he brought with him from Oklahoma City.
There are times when Green makes the game look easy, scoring with that swooping righthanded layup, canning 3-pointers from the corner, or using the pump fake and draining that midrange jumper. Then there are nights such as Monday, when he seems to force the game, misses shots, becomes frustrated, and then disappears.
With a long losing streak hovering over the team and other players simply outperforming Green, coach Brad Stevens had no other choice but to bench him for the fourth quarter. Green said after the game that a shoulder injury sustained in the first quarter limited his effectiveness. Stevens mentioned no such injury.
“I thought he was excellent offensively the [previous] two games,” Stevens said. “And I thought the first possession of tonight he was guarding like a really, really good defender guards. Again, I don’t want to make excuses for him and, at the same time, I don’t want to assume anything, but he just didn’t have it and that’s OK. That’s why other guys are on the team to step up and fill the void when that happens. I thought some other guys did a good job, but clearly he wants to play better than that.”
While that statement speaks to the evenness of the talent on this team, it’s hard to imagine any NBA coach saying about his player with All-Star potential, “That’s OK, he didn’t play well, we’ve got other guys who can take his minutes.”
Those are Green’s minutes and he should snatch them every night, becoming an immovable force in the fourth quarter. Monday night, the Celtics needed an engaged Green, but five other Celtics attempted more shots, including newcomer Jerryd Bayless. Green did not attempt a free throw. Houston guard Jeremy Lin attempted six.
The Celtics are going through a transition season, playing the first 39 games without their best player, Rajon Rondo, but Green was supposed to flourish in the role of go-to guy. In Oklahoma City, he was squarely another option behind Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden and when he arrived in Boston, Paul Pierce was the starting small forward.
Without Pierce and Kevin Garnett dominating the ball, Green was supposed to pile up the numbers, produce a career year, and show the Celtics and the rest of the NBA why they invested a four-year deal in a player coming off surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm. The light, which had been flickering like one of those bothersome ones in your neighbor’s front yard, was supposed to shine consistently this year.
In his second NBA season, 2008-09, Westbrook’s rookie year, Green averaged 16.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2 assists, and shot 44.6 percent. This season, Green is averaging 16.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and is shooting 44.3 percent. Those are nice numbers, but Green is 27, entering his physical prime and unquestionably has the potential to dominate defenders more often.
There are nights when he displays his array of skills in the first quarter and then dissolves in the final three. Somehow, the Celtics have to discover the secret to consistency for Green, or he has to discover it himself.
“It wasn’t because I was playing bad,” Green said of his fourth-quarter benching. “I sprained my shoulder toward the end of the first [quarter] and then it kept nagging me throughout the game, so maybe that’s the reason. I don’t know. The team that was in, they did a great job of fighting and getting back into the game.”
When asked if he was upset sitting out the fourth quarter, he said, “I mean I understand. I couldn’t give anything because of the shoulder, but any other given time I do want to be out there.”
Stevens has no allegiance to Green and fully admits the Celtics lack a superstar player who commands minutes. When Green isn’t shooting well, he has to affect the game in other areas — defense, rebounding, hustle. Doc Rivers spent 2½ years chiding Green about his ability to rebound, but his failing to do it.
“They’re always open,” Stevens said about the minutes on his team. “The best example of that is [Kris] Humphries. He didn’t play first 10 games, basically. Just kind of stayed the course and it worked out for him. [Minutes are] open, but the key to that is, you have to be really productive when you’re on the floor because we have so many guys who are capable, but yet very even.”
Such conditions shouldn’t apply to Green, but at this point they do.
His goal going forward should be to make it so that his minutes are assumed because every night he’s giving premium effort and performance. That won’t always result in eye-popping numbers, but he will have an imprint on each game.