BOSTON — The doubts are raised after every disappointing shooting night. In some cases, they pop up even more suddenly, such as any offensive possession that passes without a replay-worthy dunk. Jeff Green exists in only two versions in the eyes of some observers: the game-dominating freak of nature or the milquetoast waste of four years and $36 million weighing down a Celtics team that cannot afford to carry any dead weight.
Green might never consistently live up to the first label, though he is definitely not the second. Since injuries forced Celtics coach Doc Rivers to move him into the starting lineup, however, a matchup nightmare has been born. Paired up with Paul Pierce, a versatile forward like himself who can shift between both frontcourt positions in spurts and man the wing in the backcourt as well, Green has feasted on opponents who are not lucky enough to have two players with the strength and coordination to match.
“You’ve seen a lot of flashes of that this year,” Pierce said. “A lot of teams come into these games really focused on what I’m trying to do in the scouting report. When you’ve got a guy like Jeff who can put up big numbers like that and take over a game, it’s fun. It’s fun to watch and be a part of.”
Pierce was able to watch just such a performance on Wednesday. If not for Green, the Celtics probably would have been licking their wounds after an embarrassing loss in which they coughed up an 18-point lead. They sleepwalked through a game against the Pistons for the third and final time this season, and there was a very real possibility the Celtics could come away with their eighth loss in 10 games.
But Green would not let them lose — not just because of his 34 points, but with timely contributions in other areas. The Celtics were killed on the boards, giving up 25 offensive rebounds to Detroit and losing the overall rebounding battle 52-34, but Green tore away a defensive rebound from Rodney Stuckey and Greg Monroe after the Celtics forced a key miss in the fourth quarter. Green was also the player who gathered the rebound after Charlie Villanueva missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer with 16 seconds left, tiptoeing the sideline and passing to Brandon Bass as he listed out of bounds to help seal the win.
On top of that, Green played the final three minutes, 19 seconds with five fouls, making his performance in crunchtime all the more impressive. He kept being aggressive, even though he was just one ticky-tack call away from disqualification.
(Marc Davis was in a foul-giving mood, too. Davis slapped Celtics assistant coach Armond Hill with a technical foul in the fourth quarter, prompting an incredulous response from Rivers. Davis must have been lathered up by the presence of Rajon Rondo, who was in the building putting up shots about an hour before tip-off.)
It was about time Green took over a game in this way. Although he has had his moments — his 43-point eruption against Miami was his breakout game, and he posted back-to-back 27-point games against the Hawks and Knicks — such dominance has been rare for Green. Having to share the ball with two future Hall of Famers in Pierce and Kevin Garnett, plus an All-Star point guard in Rondo earlier in the season, may have played a role in Green’s perceived passivity.
Green’s own comments after Wednesday’s game seem to suggest he may defer too much.
“I don’t try to take over games,” Green said. “We’ve got ‘The Truth.’ I’m playing off of him. We’re looking for each other, being aggressive. If it’s in my hands, I’m going to try to make a play with it. If it’s in his hands, he’s going to make a play. We’ve just got to play off each other.”
Playing off each other is nice, but it was jarring to hear Green talk about deferring to Pierce on a night the captain shot just 5-for-14 while he went off. When Garnett returns to the court, which could be as soon as the end of this week, the Celtics need Green to continue to operate as though he is their No. 1 option.
“I don’t think he worries about who’s on the floor with him or anything like that,” Rivers said. “I do think that takes time, though, when you’re playing with Paul and Kevin and Rondo earlier in the year. I think that’s hard. You see those three guys and you tend to think, ‘Do I? Should I be aggressive?'”
The fans may continue to doubt whenever Green misses a jumper or glides away from contact, but the Celtics cannot afford for Green to harbor such doubts about himself. Even after Garnett comes back, the center will probably need a game or two to test his inflamed left ankle and get the muscle memory back in his legs. Rondo is done for the season, as is Jared Sullinger. Pierce is doing all he can to fill every absent player’s role, but he can only do so much.
If the Celtics are to still have a prayer of being more than first-round fodder for the Knicks, Pacers or Heat, Green must treat more games like he did Wednesday’s. He cannot think of Pierce as being option No. 1 and himself as some sort of fallback plan. Green needs to think of himself as no less than option 1(a) in the Celtics’ offense to make him and Pierce the lethal combination they have the potential to be.