BOSTON — Jeff Green didn’t know any other way to describe how poorly he played on offense, so he went with the G-rated version of the word he really wanted to use.
“Offensively, I played like poop,” Green said.
Green’s choice of words drew a cackle of laughter from Jared Sullinger in the next locker over, and Green’s teammate kept laughing as Green explained how he tried to compensate by playing tougher defense on Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony. When he had finished his answer, Green turned back to Sullinger, who was still chuckling.
“What?” Green said. “I couldn’t say the other word.”
Green’s vocabulary may have been humorous to Sullinger, but it was also accurate. Green was 2-for-6 from the field before driving to the cup for an and-one layup to clinch the Celtics’ 90-86 victory Friday over the Knicks, but his big shot wasn’t his most important contribution to the win. Drawing the primary defensive assignment of guarding Anthony, Green responded by helping force the NBA’s second-leading scorer to miss seven of his eight shot attempts in the fourth quarter.
At that point, given Green’s own struggles to score, it was the only way to justify him still being on the floor late in a close game.
“I wouldn’t say [Anthony's] offense took me out of rhythm on my offensive side,” Green said. “Like I said, I played like poop. I just had to try to find a way to get myself in the game and help my team win.”
As in most battles between Boston and New York, the game had ebbs and flows and different heroes or goats depending on the moment. Sullinger looked unstoppable early, scoring 17 points in the first half against a helpless Andrea Bargnani and Amare Stoudemire. Courtney Lee, who was held scoreless and fouled out in 15 minutes in Wednesday’s loss to the Clippers, hit two miracle buzzer-beaters as part of an 18-point night.
After halftime, Bargnani bounced back with 10 points in the third quarter to give New York a five-point lead. Then Celtics backup big man Vitor Faverani played almost the entire fourth quarter while Sullinger watched the final six minutes from the bench. While Green remained quiet offensively, Avery Bradley scored seven crucial points in the fourth, including a 3-pointer in transition to give the Celtics the lead for good at 86-84 with 2:38 left.
The Celtics were still on thin ice, though, even after Crawford found Faverani slipping through the weak side for a layup to put the Celtics up by four with a minute to go. Anthony got the ball at the top of the key, drove to the right block and shot-faked twice before pulling up for a shot that Green got a piece of. After a turnover by Jordan Crawford, Bargnani hit a midrange jumper and the Celtics clung to a two-point lead with 30 seconds left.
That was when the Celtics called the number of Green, who has been maligned for not being a true go-to player. He drew a mismatch with J.R. Smith defending him on a switch and took the smaller defender to the hoop for a falling bank shot as he drew a foul. The free throw didn’t go down, but with 9.5 seconds remaining all the Celtics needed to do was avoid fouling the Knicks on a three.
Lee watched Green’s shot from the bench along with Sullinger, and both said they had no doubt Green would deliver at the end despite his rough shooting night to that point.
“That’s what stars do in this league, and Jeff is an up-and-coming star,” Lee said. “He was struggling all night and he had to make plays for us to win. He was guarding Carmelo, another All-Star he went up against, and he was able to get a stop, block his shot and then get a big basket for us with an and-one late in the game.”
Green has had larger point totals and more dazzling baskets, but there’s never been any doubt he could deliver flashes of his immense talent. Less certain was whether he could come through like he did Friday, in a game in which he clearly lacked rhythm, by delivering a big shot that wasn’t all that pretty.
Consider Green on the right side of the argument for one game. His performance didn’t jump out of the box score, but this wasn’t the type of performance that can just be flushed away.
Listen to Green’s “poop” comment, and Sullinger’s reaction, in the audio clip below.