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Opinion: Celtics have to find out what they have with Jeff Green

11.15.12 at 11:20 pm ET
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A technical foul was the perfect punctuation to Jeff Green’s dunk on Al Jefferson Wednesday night ‘€“ not because Green deserved the penalty, but because the stoppage in play provided the opportunity for Celtics fans to digest what they had just seen.

Up to that point this season, Green had been a bust. His contract seemed like an albatross of Carl Crawford proportions. With his four-year, $32 million deal, Green is the fourth-highest-paid player on the team, behind only Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo. The problem is Green is playing like the seventh- or eighth-best player on the team, depending on where you rank Jason Terry, Brandon Bass, Jared Sullinger and Courtney Lee.

Thursday night failed to offer any additional clarity to Green’s situation, with the forward scoring five points in 25 minutes during the Celtics’ 102-97 loss to the Nets in Brooklyn. It was a performance that made Wednesday’s heroics seem like an aberration.

Even after Green’s 16-point contribution in the win over Utah, he ranked sixth on the team in scoring (8.8 points per game) and seventh in minutes (21.6 per game). At best, he’s marginally overpaid when you consider Bass and Terry will earn $6.5 million and $5 million this year, respectively. At worst, he’s Danny Ainge‘s recurring mistake, first as the centerpiece of the trade that cost the Celtics Kendrick Perkins, and then as a $32 million version of Rashard Lewis.

The dunk of the season so far gave us a chance to see what Ainge saw in Green all along. The 6-foot-9 forward can flush on Al Jefferson in traffic. He can score 16 points in the flow of the game without having a single play run for him. And evidently, his teammates love him.

After Green threw it down on Jefferson, the ensuing scene seemed reminiscent of an And1 Mixtape Tour. Green didn’t deserve a technical; he almost seemed to be staring down Al Jefferson to make sure he did, in fact, dunk on an All-Star center. But perhaps Green’s teammates deserved the technical. Garnett followed Green around the court, cursing in his ear and pushing him in the chest. Other teammates took turns pushing Green, who typically shies away from that kind of contact.

The celebration seemed to stem from the fact that the Celtics need THAT Jeff Green. Garnett’s been saying it, and he’s right. Green needs to be meaner, more aggressive. He needs to dish out more NBA fouls, and he needs to get down low in the paint when Garnett is on the bench.

Too many times in the opening two weeks of the season Green almost seemed tuned out on offense. He’d come off the bench with the second unit, and instead of taking over, he’d hide in the corners waiting for a kick-out pass. It seemed to be the worst place to set up for a 6-foot-9, athletic forward who has shot 33 percent from 3-point land for his career. The Celtics aren’t paying Green $32 million to be Rashard Lewis. They’re paying him to be the guy who pushed James Harden out of the starting lineup in Oklahoma City.

Green has a variety of excuses for his slow start. For one, he missed all of last season after undergoing heart surgery, so he can be forgiven for taking some extra time to get into the flow of the game. He’s been out of position often on defense, which is to be expected of someone who is still grasping the defensive schemes. He’s appeared less than confident on offense, which is also to be expected when you consider he seems miscast — spending much of his time waiting for passes in the corners, even though he’s hardly Ray Allen. Still, Green appeared perfectly comfortable playing against lesser opponents in the preseason, when he led the Celtics in scoring and minutes.

But here’s another factor: Doc Rivers could do a better job of making Green comfortable. For one, Green was a starter for his entire career in Oklahoma City. Of the 209 games he played for the Thunder, he started all 209. In three seasons, he averaged 16.5, 15.1 and 15.2 points per season, respectively. He also grabbed between 5.6 and 6.7 rebounds per game each season, never playing less than 36.8 minutes per night. Green is a starter, he has been most of his career. Bench players typically possess one specific trait, whether it be as a scorer (Terry), a defensive stopper (Tony Allen), a big body (Chris Wilcox) or a 3-point shooter (Eddie House). Green doesn’t do one thing particularly well, he does everything pretty well.

Looking at the plus-minus statistics for the Celtics players on 82games.com, Green ranks eighth on the team behind Rondo, Garnett, Terry, Pierce, Bass, Wilcox and Sullinger. At the moment, Green doesn’t have a role. He jogs up the court on offense and finds a corner. On defense, he struggles with rotations and physicality. His dunk over Jefferson gave us a glimpse that he is capable of more.

When all is said and done this season, the Celtics will need Green. First, they’ll need him in the regular season to help limit the minutes and workloads of Garnett and Pierce. At the moment, Pierce is averaging 34.6 minutes per night, and Garnett is at 30.1. In a perfect world, they’d both average four fewer minutes per night. In the playoffs, the Celtics will undoubtedly need Green as another competitive body to match up against the LeBrons, Carmelos and Danny Grangers of the world for short stretches during seven-game series.

It’s time for carve out more minutes ‘€“ and more of a role ‘€“ for Green. Regardless of whether that happens or not, Green will be the fourth-highest-paid player on the team at the end of the season. For the Celtics to go where they want to go, Green will have to be the fourth-best player on the team.

Read More: Al Jefferson, Jeff Green, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce
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