BOSTON — Labels can be hard to shake. Jordan Crawford was dubbed “mercurial” and he’s still fighting that notion, whatever it means. Brandon Bass is still working to shed his reputation as a poor defender after three straights years of improvement on that end. And Jeff Green may never escape the idea that he is inconsistent.
Green is a lot of things — insanely athletic, a bit too passive for his own good and a thankful survivor of heart surgery — but calling him “inconsistent” only works if one assumes all opponents are created equal and every defense presents the same sets of challenges. Neither of those things is true, which is why calling Green “inconsistent” is a bit of a lazy, if understandable, shortcut.
While some might see the swings in Green’s point totals as a product of inconsistency, what they should really see in Green is a player who is very effective at exploiting specific matchups — which he did to devastating effect against the Cavaliers on Friday.
“I’m just taking what the defense gives me,” Green said after the Celtics’ 103-86 win. “It’s hard to pinpoint positioning, plays, when there’s different defensive schemes each game, so I’m just taking what’s there.”
In this one quote, Green encapsulated his entire, maddening career. He dropped a season-high 31 points on Friday, helping the Celtics douse the Cavs and move within a half-game of first place in the Atlantic Division. Green is now averaging 20.8 points in the last six games after cracking the 20-point barrier in just three out of 12 games previously. But Green hasn’t simply turned it on after coasting through the first dozen games of the season. Implying that was the case is unfair to Green and ignorant of the varying personnel and schemes of opposing teams.
Green’s performance on Friday was made possible by the Cavs, who continued to switch smaller defenders onto Green even as he took each one into the post time after time. To the Celtics’ credit, they recognized those mismatches and worked the ball to Green nearly every time Kyrie Irving or Dion Waiters covered him. When Green didn’t convert the bucket himself, he was able to get to the foul line for one of his 13 free throws or to open up a teammate as the Cavs collapsed to help.
The result was a victory that looked rather effortless for both Green and the Celtics. But coach Brad Stevens insisted it was just the opposite.
“The real point is that it was very effort-ful, right?” Stevens said. “It may look effortless, but he is getting the position. He is getting to the right spots. He is playing very aggressive, very assertive on the blocks. The great ones out there, especially the great athletes, can look like they’re not playing very hard because they glide a little bit. He certainly is an athlete, but I felt his performance [Friday] was full of focus and effort.”
Green was determined to get the ball in his spots and capitalized on his advantages on Friday, but that doesn’t mean those advantages will be there every game. Lots (and lots and lots) of teams are better defensively as a team than the Cavs, not to mention that many teams have players who are better individual matchups for the 6-foot-9, 235-pound forward. No, there should not be nights for Green like his 0-for-6 performance against Minnesota. But going 10-for-19 from the field, as he did Friday, cannot be the norm, either.
Yet while Green can’t necessarily be counted upon to dominate every game, he can become more assertive in exploiting his matchup advantages. He tends to play well against Miami, for instance, even though LeBron James is a darn good defender, because James has the tendency to float and leave his assigned man. When Green is locked in, he makes defenders — even defenders like James — pay for lapses like those.
“You find what your strengths are,” Stevens said. “They’re not necessarily your strengths in the big picture. It might be your strengths relative to who you’re playing.”
The Celtics’ upcoming schedule suggests Green could have a few more big nights in his near future. Their next five opponents are pretty terrible defensively, and Green won’t see anyone considered an above-average wing defender until Jared Dudley on Dec. 11. If Green sputters through those games, then the accusations of inconsistency might have more merit.
If Green continues to put up solid numbers, however, it isn’t simply because he is locked in or has discovered some ancient secret that was hidden to him before. Most likely, it will be because Stevens identifies an advantage Green has over the opponent, Green’s teammates recognize the mismatch in the course of the game and Green delivers on his advantage within the flow of the offense.
Maybe then Green can start to dispel the idea that he is merely “inconsistent” and that the consistency of his production is entirely up to him. In his own words, Green takes what the defense gives him. Some nights, that is 31 points. Some nights, it’s nothing. In both cases, Green provides exactly what is there the be taken. In a way, that’s a form of consistency in itself.