Commentary

So far, it ain't easy being Jeff Green

Updated: November 8, 2012, 10:01 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

Looking for more out of Jeff Green, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers seems to have shifted to more of a tough-love approach with the 26-year-old forward in hopes of figuring out what motivates him.

While Rivers absorbed much of the blame for Green's inability to establish himself as an impact player in Boston after being acquired from Oklahoma City at the trade deadline in February 2011, Rivers has recently called on Green to figure out how to maximize his obvious physical abilities, suggesting the issue might be mental at the moment.

[+] EnlargeJeff Green
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesJeff Green has not found his stride yet.

Rivers acknowledged that Green doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeve the way teammates Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo do, but he's imploring Green to play with the sort of aggressiveness he promised to deliver this offseason and showed glimpses of in the preseason.

"Jeff's not going to ever show you intensity, even though he may have it, if you know what I'm saying. He's a poker-face player," Rivers said during his weekly appearance on Boston sports radio station WEEI (93.7 FM) on Thursday. "You're just not going to get that out of him. What you want to get out of him is great play. And he has to play better, there's no doubt about that. He's proven in stretches that he can really play -- and play well -- and he did that in preseason. So far in the regular season, he hasn't done that yet, and that's what we need him to do."

Pressed on Green's potential, Rivers said it's a high ceiling, but one that could be reached only with the right mental approach.

"[Green can be] really good -- whatever that means. But really, really good," said Rivers. "I think he has it in him. The question for Jeff, is he a guy that can consistently give you 20 points per night, or 18 points per night? It's in him, as far as what we see, ability-wise. But you have to have the ability and the mental [makeup], and that's what we'll find out, if the other part is in him."

Rivers often goes out of his way to protect his players. This is the same coach who did his best to put on his own poker face when he suggested last season that Ray Allen was fine with a bench role, and Rivers routinely accepts blame for player's on-court miscues that would otherwise leave them in the crosshairs.

And while Green is far from the only Celtics player to struggle early in the new campaign, his inability to play with sustained aggression (and production) has left pundits wondering if he can emerge as a key cog on a team with so many options.

Through four games, Green is averaging career lows across the board at 7.8 points and 2 rebounds over 21.8 minutes per game. Dig deeper and you'll find the Celtics are plus-11 in the 110 minutes that Green has been on the bench, but minus-26 over the 87 minutes that he's been on the floor.

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The question is whether this should come as a surprise. During the 2011 playoffs, allowing for some acclimation after he initially arrived in Boston late in the regular season, the statistics suggest that the Celtics were a remarkably better team when Green was off the floor. Boston's offensive rating alone was nearly 17 points better without Green during the playoffs, and the defensive rating dropped by nearly three points with him on the pine.

Green's intensity has been up and down at the start of the new season. He blended with the scenery for the first quarter and a half of Wednesday's tilt with the Wizards, then came off the bench midway through the second frame and produced back-to-back buckets (a driving layup and a 22-foot jumper). Just when you started to wonder if that was the spark he needed, he missed his next two shots and turned the ball over on another possession.

Green played only eight minutes after the intermission as the Celtics leaned on Jason Terry and Brandon Bass with the Big Three at crucial moments down the stretch. This after Rivers wondered aloud during the preseason if Green was a surefire late-game fixture.

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge kept the onus on the team to figure out how to best utilize Green's talents.

"Jeff has been inconsistent in his production and is trying to find his way," Ainge said during his weekly appearance on WEEI. "I think he, more than any other player, is trying to find out where he can contribute. What we need from Jeff, we need him to play that great defense, rebound every night, and there are going to be nights when he can get us 20 points off the bench. And some nights when his number won't be called as much. I think, offensively, just finding that niche, that way. He's been fairly productive when we call his number, but he hasn't been as productive playing off the ball and off our stars."

The trouble there is that Green's weakness during his career has typically been where Ainge is suggesting he should thrive. Green is a competitive defender due to his length and athleticism, but has struggled with star talent. And he's been a below-average rebounder despite his size.

During the offseason, Green suggested those were two areas he needed to improve, but he hasn't been able to sustain it during the regular season thus far. Ainge was pressed on whether Green is simply too passive at times.

"It's a fine line. That's a hard call," said Ainge. "He -- we have to find a way to allow him to contribute more, and to not have to figure that out on his own. In time, he will figure it out -- we'll all figure it out."

It's prudent to be somewhat patient with Green, as it is with the Celtics as a whole. We're dealing with an extremely small sample size, and Boston is clearly enduring growing pains as it integrates new faces -- Green included, after sitting out all of last season while undergoing surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm.

But, fair or not, Green's hefty offseason payday -- four years, $36 million -- puts him in an increased spotlight. And while other newcomers like Terry have had breakout moments, Green is still waiting for his (though you can make the case that others like Courtney Lee are enduring similar early-season woes).

Rivers appears to be trying to light a fire under Green. The Celtics know that much of their success hinges on whether they can pluck that talent out of Green on a consistent basis.

Green needs to ignore the noise at the moment and focus on what allowed him to excel this preseason. A big part of it is earning Rivers' trust. That, more than overall production, is the most important first step in getting Green to be the type of player both he and the Celtics envision he can be this season.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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