- Chris Forsberg, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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WALTHAM, Mass. -- It was almost certainly by design that, on the first play of Sunday's win over the Orlando Magic, the Boston Celtics sent Jeff Green into the post looking to establish him early in a spot they are desperate to see him in more often.
Green caught the ball on the blocks, tried to back down Tobias Harris but met immediate resistance, and settled for a baseline fadeaway that clanged off the iron. According to Synergy Sports data, it was one of only two shots out of post-up attempts in the game for Green, both resulting in misses.
On a feel-good day in which the Celtics shot 50 percent as a team for the first time since early December and emerged with a rare win, Green finished with 2-of-13 shooting and eight points, the only starter not to score in double figures.
Here's the concern: Rajon Rondo is back after a yearlong absence and starting to look like his old self as he shakes off some rust; Avery Bradley has shown tremendous strides in his offensive game while being one of Boston's most consistent two-way players; and Jared Sullinger is blossoming in his second season, even while playing out of position as an undersized center.
Green? He failed to distinguish himself when anointed the focal point of the offense without Rondo at the start of the season, has shown mere glimpses of his obvious potential (31 points vs. Cleveland in November; 39 points vs. Washington last month), and simply has failed to display the sort of advancement one would expect from a 27-year-old with his talents on a rebuilding team.
For his part, coach Brad Stevens refuses to lament what Green has failed to do. Instead, he has put Green's failures on himself and his coaching staff while pledging to put Green in better position to succeed moving forward.
"All of us have had our games where we didn't do our jobs as well as we would have liked to," Stevens said. "To put that on him is not fair to him. I support him. I think he's going to play really well throughout the rest of this year. ... My focus isn't necessarily on how he's done so far, but more on how can I help him to be the best he can be every day."
With that in mind, Stevens has encouraged his team to put the ball in Green's hands in transition or in the post when he has favorable matchups. Green's transition numbers this season are decent (Synergy data puts him at 1.178 points per play, ranking in the 63rd percentile), but he scores on 55.3 percent of the transition opportunities attempted. It's no secret that Green is at his best in the open court when he can use his athleticism.
But his struggles as a spot-up shooter (he's a career-worst 41.6 percent for the season, though he's at 35.9 percent beyond the 3-point arc) and his limitations in the pick-and-roll (maybe Green's most glaring weakness, he averages only 0.633 points per play, ranking in the 25th percentile and turning the ball over 18.8 percent of plays) have the Celtics trying to put an emphasis on his strengths.
Playing the swingman spot, Green should often have height advantages to exploit around the basket and has the ability to feed perimeter shooters when teams commit double-teams.
"The biggest thing for us right now is we just have to be consistent and try to get him the ball against the right matchups and then him take advantage of those matchups," Stevens said. "In some games he gets doubled, and some games he doesn't have a matchup that's advantageous, certainly, as far as on the post goes. But then a lot of times, he does.
"And I think most of the time, what I'm talking about is, being able to get him the ball in the post. In the half court, he's very good down there, he's also good in certain other scenarios that I think we could do more often. I think it's fair for us to continue to explore every which way to help him maximize the way he's playing. And I do think it starts in transition.
"We've got to get him the ball more in transition. Everybody is accountable for that. But at the end of the day, that's the way I look at it. Any time a guy's struggling, it's how can we help him to get a little bit better?"
It's noble for Stevens to try to take some of the blame for Green's inconsistent output, but much of it is on the player. Far too often this season, Green seems content to dance around the perimeter, maybe a little too complacent with easy 3-point looks, rather than to roll up his sleeves and get dirty around the basket.
According to the NBA's player tracking data, Green averages just 1.4 close touches per game (touches that originate 12 feet from the basket). For a player who averages 38.7 frontcourt touches per night, that's an alarmingly low number. In fact, Green ranks eighth on Boston in close touches, sitting behind Jared Sullinger (3.8), Brandon Bass (3.4), Kris Humphries (2.2), Rajon Rondo (2), Kelly Olynyk (1.8), Gerald Wallace (1.8) and Vitor Faverani (1.7).
You can understand the bigs having more close touches, maybe even Rondo, who likes to visit the blocks to get himself going. But Wallace averages 12.7 fewer frontcourt touches per game than Green and yet has more touches close to the basket.
Green has a propensity to set up for a post-up about 15 feet from the hoop and, unable to move his defender, dribble back out to the 3-point line, where the offense must reset. Far too often it ends with him coming off a simple pick-and-roll and settling for a 3-point shot or a long jumper.
As Stevens has identified, good things happen when Green goes at the basket. He draws fouls at a high rate and defenders often swarm the ball, leaving teammates open for quality looks.
The trade deadline looms on Feb. 20 and it's fair to wonder if Green still fits the Celtics' future plans. He's in the second year of a four-year, $36.2 million deal and, despite his underperformance, there will be teams interested in his services, even at that price tag.
Stevens doesn't worry about what the front office might do. His job is to get the most out of whoever is available and he's doing all he can to figure out how to utilize Green's talents.
But ultimately it's on the player to maximize those opportunities, and Green hasn't done that to this point.
The Celtics' Jeff Green continues to struggle to find his comfort zone.