BOSTON -- Jeff Green and Jared Sullinger are locker neighbors and both were dressing after the Boston Celtics posted a 90-86 win over the New York Knicks on Friday night, so when a reporter prefaced a question for Sullinger by noting that "Jeff was having a rough night," Green was in earshot and Sullinger could only chuckle at the statement.
"In his face, wow! Honestly, you're going to have nights like that," said Sullinger, to which Green playfully shouted, "Thanks Sully!" as he answered. "Jeff, defensively, did a great job on Carmelo [Anthony]. He did his job. And just because he wasn't scoring, doesn't mean he wasn't effective."
To that point, the five possessions that Melo finished with Green guarding him in the fourth quarter played out like this: turnover, missed 12-foot jumper, missed 3-pointer, missed 10-foot jumper, blocked layup attempt.
No need to grab your calculators. That's zero points allowed on five defended possessions over the final 8 minutes, 19 seconds as the Celtics rallied from an 11-point deficit for their second victory over New York in six days. In the fourth quarter, Anthony finished 1-of-8 shooting for three points and was minus-11 in plus/minus for the frame.
This win didn't come nearly as easily as Boston's 41-point shellacking of the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. But the Celtics can thank Green for helping them rally after kicking away a 17-point first-half lead.
Green actually labored through the first three quarters. Not only did he have just four points on 1-o-f 3 shooting, but he was minus-19 in 19:38 of floor time. He played nine inspired minutes to close out the game and produced a clutch driving layup with 9 seconds to play to put the game out of reach.
After talking with Sullinger, reporters shuffled over to chat with Green, and this time the first question was phrased so as to highlight his defensive contributions.
"That was the only way I could be in the game at that point. Offensively, I played like poop," admitted Green, his family-friendly choice of words leaving Sullinger cackling in delight nearby. "I had to find a way to allow Coach [Brad Stevens] to put me on the floor, and, defensively in the second half, that was the only way I could be on the floor, so I had to step it up on that end."
The Celtics matched Brandon Bass on Anthony for much of the first half and when Green did find himself on the Knicks' All-Star, the results weren't pretty. According to individual defensive data logged by Synergy Sports, Anthony scored seven points on four possessions defended by Green (making three of four shots, including an and-one layup off a pump-fake).
That didn't stop Green from accepting the challenge again in the fourth quarter. The Celtics were clinging to a four-point lead with a minute to go when Anthony attacked the basket out of a timeout. Green didn't bite on a series of up-fakes before swatting a layup attempt on the baseline.
"Jeff went to a different level in the last eight minutes than he was in the first stint at guarding him late in the first half," said Stevens. "And that's really encouraging to see, because I really thought he did a great job."
On both ends of the floor, no less. Andrea Bargnani hit a 17-foot jumper to cut Boston's lead to 88-86 with 30 seconds to go and the Celtics put the ball in Green's hands.
Green got the Knicks to switch a half-hearted pick-and-roll, leaving him with a mismatch with J.R. Smith defending above the right side of the arc. Boston players cleared out for an isolation and Green attacked the hoop with 5 ticks on the shot clock. He blew past Smith and Amar'e Stoudemire scrambled over with help, but Green floated a little one-handed layup off the glass and Smith tumbled into the stanchion from the momentum of chasing him. Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca gave Green a pat on the back on the baseline as Green picked himself off the floor, having iced the come-from-behind victory.
"I want the ball at the end of the game, no matter the situation," said Green. "I feel like I can make a play for myself or my team. When it comes down to it, I want the ball."
Green finished with 8 points on 3-of-7 shooting with 4 rebounds, 2 assists and the block over 28:35. He had been a more consistent offensive player in recent weeks, but this might have been one of his most encouraging performances of the season.
The Celtics have been getting balanced offensive contributions, so for Green to be able to change the game defensively, and step up in a clutch situation, shows maturity in his play.
It's the latest example of Green having that so-called clutch gene, and that shouldn't be discredited on a young team that needs a go-to presence in crunch time. While it's the buzzer-beaters in Miami that will be most commonly recalled, Green's defense on Anthony changed the complexion of Friday's game. And his fearless drive sealed it.
For Green, a rough start gave way to a very smooth finish.