Facing the favored Oklahoma City Thunder, Phoenix fell down by 16 points in the third quarter. A loss would drop them into a three-way tie in the loss column with the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies for the last two playoff spots. They needed a miracle.
They got Gerald Green.
The athletic shooting guard went nuclear in the third, scoring 25 points as Phoenix closed the quarter on a 14-0 run. Green finished with a career-high 41 points in a 128-122 Suns victory.
Should Gerald Green win the Most Improved Player award?
His eight three-pointers were one off the franchise record, and he came within a missed third-period free throw of matching the team record for points in a quarter. The win marked the end of a franchise-worst 11-game losing streak to the Thunder.
Thursday's game was not only the culmination of a brilliant recent stretch for Green—he's averaging 23.3 points, a 47.7 field-goal percentage and a 44.0 three-point percentage over his last 12 games—it was also the high point in what has been a comeback season for the ages.
Green is averaging career highs in just about every category. TNT basketball personalities Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith mentioned him (along with teammate Goran Dragic) as a front-runner for the NBA's Most Improved Player of the Year award during Thursday's broadcast.
Just how much better has the seven-year veteran been this season? Per ESPN Stats & Info:
Tonight was the 10th time this season Gerald Green has made 5 3-pointers. He had 4 such games in his career entering this season.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 7, 2014
Green was considered an elite prospect after earning McDonald's All-American honors and declaring for the draft out of high school. But his career quickly turned into a cautionary tale for any raw, young athlete looking to go pro too soon.
Now, not only has Green found a home with this surprising Suns squad, he has transformed himself into a player who could shake up the Western Conference playoff race.
An Odyssey to the Desert
The Boston Celtics must have been thrilled when they picked Gerald Green with the No. 18 overall pick in the 2005 draft. Picking outside of the lottery, they still got their hands on perhaps the best athlete in the entire class.
Green was a 6'8" hybrid shooting guard/small forward with nearly unparalleled leaping ability. All the Celtics had to do was harness his potential, and they would have the steal of the draft.
But it was not to be. Following his second season in Boston, the Celtics included him in the package used to acquire Kevin Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves in the summer of 2007. Green lasted half a season in Minnesota before being traded to the Houston Rockets in a Feb. 2008 deadline deal. He played one game in Houston before being waived.
For the 2008-09 season, Green signed with the Dallas Mavericks. He averaged 5.2 points in just 9.9 minutes per game. No longer desired by NBA teams, Green played two seasons in Russia and China from 2009-2011.
He then latched on with the Lakers' D-League affiliate, the Los Angeles D-Fenders, but his big second chance in America came when he convinced the dreadful 2011-12 New Jersey Nets to offer him a 10-day contract. He impressed the Nets enough to earn a contract for the rest of the season, and he averaged a career-high 12.9 points in 31 games.
That audition was enough to earn Green a three-year, $10.5 million deal with the Indiana Pacers. But he struggled mightily coming off the bench in Indiana during 2012-13, and the team happily included him in a deal to get former Suns big man Luis Scola.
During the preseason, Valley of the Suns' Ryan Weisert classified Phoenix's new acquisition as an athletically gifted enigma:
Why Green has failed to find himself as a player is a difficult question to answer. Teams see his unlimited athleticism and rightly believe he could be a huge asset. But no team or coach has really been able to harness his incredible athletic ability and put it to consistent use. Whether his limitation has been physical or mental is anyone’s guess.
Looking back, that trade of Green, Miles Plumlee and a first-rounder for Scola now looks like an absolute steal for Phoenix.
The Hornacek Effect
There are several reasons Suns coach Jeff Hornacek deserves to be on the short list for the Coach of the Year award. He has taken a team that finished last season with the second-most losses in franchise history to the verge of the playoffs in a tough Western Conference. He has turned Goran Dragic into a bona fide star.
But the job he has done with Gerald Green might be his most impressive work of all. Hornacek was effusive in his praise for Green after Thursday's win, per Bob Baum of The Associated Press (via Yahoo Sports):
I love the way he's playing right now. We knew he could shoot the ball. There's not too many guys that can get on a roll like that. The thing that makes him unique (is) some guys you can get up into and maybe challenge a shot a little harder. But Gerald just jumps over everybody. He's making shots that other guys can't get that high to shoot.
With all due respect, Mr. Hornacek, not everybody knew he could shoot. Green shot just 36.6 percent from the field last season, which was the fourth-worst mark in the league for players with at least 1,000 minutes, per Basketball-Reference. He had had good shooting stretches during his career, but he hadn't put together an efficient shooting line while playing regular minutes throughout an entire season.
Green is shooting 44.3 percent from the field (38.9 percent from three) while averaging 15.6 on the season.
But Green might find himself back on the bench, as starting guard Eric Bledsoe is slated to return next week, per The Arizona Republic's Paul Coro. Green began the season backing up Bledsoe, who underwent knee surgery in late December.
Chemistry is key for the Suns, who are locked in a tight battle for one of the last two playoff spots with a pair of veteran teams in Dallas and Memphis. Perhaps Bledsoe should be relegated to the bench, at least until he regains his early-season form.
Regardless of whether he continues to start, Gerald Green will continue to be a key player for the Phoenix Suns. They will need him to keep up his inspired recent play in any role if they are to complete this incredible run to the postseason.