There have been two real noticeable changes between how the Boston Celtics started the season and how they are playing now. The first is obviously Rajon Rondo's absence. The second is the emergence of Jeff Green.
Throughout November, December and much of January, Green would have a good game and then offset it with a couple of weak showings. Games like his 17-point performance in a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Nov. 23 were followed up by an 0-of-9, one-point night against the Orlando Magic.
Inconsistencies were a part of Green's season from the get-go and became something Celtics fans had to get used to. They became so maddening for head coach Doc Rivers that he started trimming Green's minutes in favor of Jared Sullinger, an inexperienced rookie.
By the time early January rolled around, Green's minutes shrank into the teens, while Sullinger became a rebounding machine, to the delight of New Englanders everywhere. Over the 14 complete games they played together in January, Sullinger was actually averaging half a minute more playing time per game.
Then, during the final game of the month, against the Sacramento Kings, Jared Sullinger went to the bench after just four minutes. He would not return to the game and won't return again this season. While this was an unfortunate turn of events for the Boston Celtics, it also acted as a turning point in the season for Jeff Green.
He scored the final Celtic basket of that game and went on a run through February. His minutes skyrocketed to 31.3 per game, while his scoring elevated from 9.3 in January to 15.3 points per game. He also saw a full rebound, block and assist increase during the month. He shot at a 51 percent clip from the field and 41 percent from beyond the arc.
His down games from early in the season were still there, but they became anomalies. A 2-of-8, eight-point game against the Chicago Bulls on Feb. 13, was bracketed by 18- and 20-point games. The Celtics went 8-4 during February, and Green was held to single-digit points just three times. In eight of those games, he took 10 or more shots.
Including their most recent win over the Golden State Warriors, the Celtics have seen Green take double-digit shots in six straight games. That is the longest such streak of the season for Boston's reserve swingman.
That may be the most important stat of all. For Green, it all stems from aggression. When he is passive on the floor, he is pretty much useless. He isn't going to rebound or hit many catch-and-shoot threes. When he isn't attacking the basket, the Celtics are better off with other players (like Sullinger) taking his minutes.
Those double-digit-attempt games are the best proof we have of Green making a change. It all may stem from him finally starting to feel comfortable on the basketball court again. It was only a little more than a year ago that he was on a table having his heart operated on.
It could also be that he has realized what the Boston Celtics need him to do in the wake of all these injuries. That type of realization and calling can help a man overcome plenty of fear. Perhaps losing Rondo, Sullinger and Barbosa has lit a fire in Green that allows him to play with the necessary confidence.
No matter the reasoning behind it, Green is finally earning the sacrifice Danny Ainge made to get him to the northeast. He is also finally earning that four-year, $36 million contract. Of the current roster, Green and Courtney Lee are the only non-rookies signed through 2015-16. It would appear he is here for the long haul, and that is finally looking like a good thing.
He probably will never be Paul Pierce, as their games don't coincide in very many places. What he can be is a bridge. The Celtics' captain has one year remaining on his current deal. Should he call it a career after 2013-14, is Boston comfortable with Green stepping into those coveted starting small forward shoes?
Green won't turn 27 until August, so his youth is still highly attractive. When his next NBA contract kicks in, Green will be just 31 for that season. One more year of he and Pierce splitting time would allow him to pick up some offensive nuance, and then the transition could become complete.
Green still needs that time, though. His game is exciting but incomplete. The talent and athleticism are there, and the confidence is returning, but no one in Oklahoma City taught him to control his powers. Green has always been hit or miss for Boston because he is still underdeveloped.
Pierce can get to the rim just about as easily as Green, with a fraction of the speed and athleticism. He has yet to learn some of those moves and deceptions that have made Pierce so good for so long.
The highlight reel from Boston's win over the Warriors on March 1 perfectly displays two or three of Pierce's moves that Green still needs to incorporate. They will help him get to the rim when sheer athleticism won't work. Green follows up by hitting a couple of jumpers, as he recognizes the space Carl Landry was giving him.
The hollering around Boston right now is for Green to be moved into the starting lineup. That would knock either Courtney Lee or Brandon Bass from the unit, as Pierce, Avery Bradley and Kevin Garnett are solidified in their roles.
This mindset has become more and more frequent with the improved consistency Green is showing. Of course, we Bostonians tend to overreact about everything—from the ingredients of our clam chowder to a collective game-by-game mood swing with our sports teams.
We must understand, though, that starting Jeff Green at this point makes more sense for the player than the team. Could Green handle a starting role? Absolutely. However, think of how the team will suffer in that case. Replacing Brandon Bass with Green (the most common argument) totally saps the bench of pretty much any explosiveness.
With the Barbosa and Sullinger injuries, that bench has become thin and is now supplemented by D-League talent and a guy the 19-39 Washington Wizards refused to play.
I've grown to appreciate Jason Terry and Chris Wilcox, but they rarely make a difference in games. They can't change the outlook of a game at both ends of the floor or create something on offense when there is nothing. Brandon Bass is in that same boat.
Green is the only thing keeping the bench at or above a league-average level. He is the only chance Boston has to make a move when most starters are on the bench. There is a reason Doc Rivers is waiting to make that move, and I don't think it is sentimentality toward Bass.
We don’t want to fall into any traps with Jeff Green—not when he has come this far. The Celtics can’t pigeon-hole him as the hyper-athletic cutter playing a supporting role in the starting lineup. He won’t complete his development that way.
Green has unpolished moves that don’t involve posterizing big men. When the time comes for him to help transition away from the Pierce-Garnett era, he has to have those moves down. When the lane isn’t there for him to throw down a vicious dunk, he has to take and hit the elbow jumper. He has to become consistent with step-up threes and creative layups.
We’ll always hope for more in the future, but right now, Jeff Green is exactly what the Celtics need.