It took a little longer than expected, but the Boston Celtics have quietly emerged as the championship-caliber club analysts thought they'd be when the 2012-13 regular season tipped off some two-plus months ago.
Thanks to some fine tuning from head coach Doc Rivers and a recent clean bill of health, the Celtics (19-17) are playing both the best basketball of their season and some of the best basketball by any team in the league.
Riding a season-high five-game winning streak, the Celtics can thank a number of key cogs for their resurgence.
But none has been greater to their recent success, nor holds more importance to their championship hopes, than fifth-year reserve forward Jeff Green.
The lanky 6'9", 235-pound Green had already established a reputation as one of the game's most gifted scorers prior to his 2011 arrival in Beantown. A prototypical stretch forward, Green pulled bigger opponents away from the basket with a reliable perimeter shot (33.6 percent from three for his career) and abused smaller ones with a diverse array of back-to-the-basket skills.
But the Celtics needed more than scoring out of the Georgetown product. They needed more than even his seemingly nightly highlight show appearances stemming from finishes like these.
Offense wasn't the Celtics problem. It was their uncharacteristically porous defense.
And that's where Green has made his biggest imprint.
According to Synergy Sports data (via ESPNBoston.com's Chris Forsberg) Green has surrendered just 0.721 points per play, the league's ninth-best mark among all players with at least 200 defensive plays.
He, along with recently returned guard Avery Bradley, has spurred the Celtics defense push back to familiar territory.
Boston afforded its opposition 97.9 points per game over the first 31 games of the season. During its recent five-game surge, a stretch that's included wins over four teams with at least playoff hopes (New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks and Houston Rockets), Rivers' team has held opponents to just 84.4.
Green's two-way abilities leave him as the greatest key to any future success.
Father Time has placed some limitations on the playing time and effectiveness of Boston's two biggest stars, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. And the still-developing shots of Bradley and Rondo have limited their own offensive contributions.
Green's Celtics career has been marred by inconsistent efforts, but he has averaged 13 points per game over his past three contests. If he's able to channel the consistency that allowed him to average better than 15 points per game in back-to-back seasons between 2008 and 2010, he could be the steady hand that Boston's second unit has lacked for the majority of the 2012-13 season.
If Green can blend his new-found defensive intensity with his former offensive proficiency, then the Celtics will once again wreak havoc on their Eastern Conference foes come playoff time.