ALLSTON, Mass. -- In a brief, wistful utterance Monday, Danny Ainge summed up what every Celtics fan was thinking this spring: "Jeff's going to be fine in the long run,'' he said of Jeff Green. "I just wish we had him last year."
An aortic abnormality discovered during a routine physical and subsequent heart surgery knocked Green out for all of the 2011-12 season. But with a healthy Green, not to mention a healthy Ray Allen and Avery Bradley, who knows what would have happened? The Celtics certainly feel they could have beaten Miami under those circumstances.
There's nothing Ainge and Doc Rivers would like better than to have all three of them back in uniform, healthy and rarin' to go in the fall, to tackle some unfinished business in 2012-13. Bradley is signed. Allen is, as they say, a high-value target.
And Green? He wasn't in Boston on Monday when the Celtics unveiled their draft picks, uniforms and all. But he might as well have been. No one is saying it's a done deal, but, really, it is. Green's agent, David Falk, even called his client "a classic Celtic."
Rivers said as much on Sunday in an interview with ESPNBoston.com: "We're going to get Jeff Green." Ainge and Falk both endorsed that line of thinking Monday, with Ainge saying, "I think we're going to enter a contract with him hopefully by the end of the moratorium."
That would be July 11.
Falk said, simply, "of course he (Green) wants to come back here. It is not done. I am optimistic it will get done. This is where Jeff wants to be."
This story goes well beyond the conventional pursuit and signing of a free agent. It's got all the qualities of one of those Hallmark Channel specials. There were issues of life and death, of risk, of blind trust and, for all concerned, a happy ending.
Jeff Green could have done the free-agent tour, thanks to a decision by the Celtics back in December to withdraw their qualifying offer, making Green an unrestricted free agent. The team did so, Ainge said Monday, as partly a goodwill gesture to Green and Falk, but also because doctors had told the Celtics that there was a very slight chance Green might be able to return to action in the late spring following his January heart operation.
"I don't think that was Jeff's intention,'' Ainge said. "I don't think that was anyone's intention. But I sat in on all the meetings with the doctors, and they said there was a slight possibility he could return."
And if that had happened, and had Green's $9 million still been on the payroll, the Celtics would have been hit with a bigger-than-anticipated luxury-tax bill. So the Celtics decided to take the risk to renounce Green, saving the money and whatever tax hit would have come had Green been able to play.
"We lost a little bit of leverage,'' Ainge said, referring to the team's decision to make Green an unrestricted free agent. "It's a little tougher dealing with David Falk this time around."
Ainge was joking. Falk may be as tough as they come, but he's also as practical as they come. His client loves the Celtics. His client loves Rivers. His client is tight with Rajon Rondo and Bradley. His client was taken aback (in a good way) by the reaction of the fans as the team made its run through the playoffs. His client wants desperately to be a part of that.
But it was also the way Ainge managed things behind the scenes that prompted Falk to do something he had done only once before in his three-plus decades as an agent. He wrote a letter to Celtics principal owner Wyc Grousbeck in February, complimenting Ainge on the way everything with Green had been managed, from the handling of the shock of the original diagnosis in December to the assembling of doctors for discussions on how to deal with the delicate matter, to the visits to Cleveland to consult surgeons, to the decision to allow Green to be an unrestricted free agent and, finally, to the welcome mat laid at Green's door once the player was able to get back on his feet.
Green was a frequent visitor to the Celtics locker room. He did much of his rehabilitation in Boston. You could almost -- almost -- envision Tim Duncan leaving San Antonio before you could envision Green not returning to Boston.
"I think the way Danny managed Jeff's situation was above and beyond the call of duty,'' Falk said. "I think they handled it with a great sense of professionalism, a great sense of caring. Those guys were absolutely first class, and it was important to me to let them know how appreciative I was."
Frankly, because of all that and the not-so-trivial development that Kevin Garnett is returning, it's a no-brainer for Green to return. It also doesn't hurt that Green enjoys playing for Rivers.
"One of the things that makes a fit effective is a players' relationship with his coach,'' Falk said. "Having a coach having your back, you're halfway home. Jeff has known Doc since he (Green) was in college where he was a teammate of Doc's son Jeremiah."
Both Falk and Ainge cautioned against unrealistic expectations, at least from the outset. Although Ainge said he considered asking Green to participate in some Summer League games, he said he feels a regular training camp and full exhibition schedule should be sufficient. Falk said Celtics fans should prepare themselves to see a new Jeff Green, not the tentative, oft-deferential, underwhelming Jeff Green they saw over the final months of the 2010-11 season.
He thinks they'll like this Jeff Green. A lot.
"The experience he went through, I feel, is a life-changing event,'' Falk said. "I think having had something that he loves almost taken away from him, he's going to come back with a sense of urgency that people haven't seen."
If that's the case, it will have been almost worth the wait. Almost. But I'm with Danny. I wish we could have seen Green this past year.