Based on the way the Boston Celtics veteran duo of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett ran out of gas down the stretch of their Game 1 loss to the New York Knicks, it's clearer than ever that Jeff Green has to play like a star for Boston to avoid an early playoff exit.
Green played an excellent game—certainly the best of any Celtic—against the Knicks, tallying 26 points, seven rebounds, two assists and three blocks on 8-of-15 shooting. In addition to his stellar, stat-stuffing effort, Green made Carmelo Anthony at least work for his 36 points.
Anthony hit just 13-of-29 shots from the field and buried a number of difficult, contested jumpers in isolation situations. In many instances, Green was as close to Anthony as he could have been without fouling on those jumpers. With a player as locked in as Anthony is right now, the best most defenders can hope to do is to make things as difficult as possible.
Green did all he could on D.
And there's a reason why Green drew the daunting assignment of checking Anthony.
In contrast to Boston's aging tandem, Green's youth and energy set him apart. He's one of the only Celtics capable of playing above the rim (witness Jason Terry's ill-fated dunk attempt in the first half as proof of the uniqueness of Green's athleticism) and represents one of the team's only real threats in transition.
With most of New York's defensive attention focused on slowing down the Celtics' bigger names, Green will continue to have ample opportunities to score. Boston seems intent on feeding the ball to Pierce at the elbows and Garnett in the post, so strategically, Green's value as a floor-spacing shooter and slasher is immense.
In Game 1, Green knocked down three of his five three-point attempts and got to the line seven times as he attacked a Knicks defense that was occasionally late in recovering on kick-out passes.
He'll have to continue to excel in these two areas for Boston to have any semblance of offensive balance.
On the season, Green's value doesn't really show up in the numbers. According to 82games.com, the Celtics offense averaged an extra 1.4 points per 100 possessions on offense when Green was on the bench. And on D, Green's presence or absence on the court had no notable effect on Boston's defensive efficiency.
Even though Green's overall effect on Boston's season-long numbers is slightly negative, his value since the All-Star break has been undeniable. In 52 games before the break, Green was flat-out awful. He averaged just 10.3 points per game and hit only 34 percent of his three-point attempts.
In 29 games since, though, he's been spectacular. Green's numbers have spiked across the board with his most notable improvements coming in his scoring average (up to 17.3 points per game) and long-range accuracy (a blistering 44 percent).
Considering Green's massive improvement recently, it's actually somewhat surprising that the Knicks didn't put a greater emphasis on slowing him down.
After all, it's abundantly clear that Boston isn't going to get much help from the other members of its supporting cast. Terry, Jordan Crawford and Courtney Lee combined to shoot 0-of-7 from the floor in Game 1, despite a bevy of open looks. The Knicks aren't concerned about anyone on the Celtics' bench—and they shouldn't be.
Pierce and Garnett combined to shoot just 10-of-27 from the field and turned the ball over a total of nine times in Game 1. Plus, they both looked totally out of sorts (or possibly fatigued) down the stretch. As long as the bench continues to play so ineffectively, the big minutes (Pierce played 39, while Garnett played 37) aren't going to shrink for Boston's vets.
That means Green is going to have to take on an even bigger load in order to avoid another late-game swoon from his aging teammates.
The Celtics will always be defined by their defensive effort and veteran grit, but right now, Jeff Green represents the team's best hope of engineering an unlikely upset.