BOSTON -- Jeff Green had just turned a mid-March game against the Miami Heat into his own personal layup line. Despite the sting of Miami's fourth-quarter comeback, the question bouncing around the Boston Celtics' locker room after Green's 43-point outburst was whether this was the spark the up-and-down forward needed to take his game to the next level.
We know the answer now, of course. Green, who had shown increased flashes of what was to come, seemingly used that Miami performance as a bit of a catapult, entrenching himself in the Celtics' starting lineup soon after and displaying previously unseen consistency over the team's final 21 games.
That included an excellent playoff showing in which Green averaged 20.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists over 43 minutes per game. He often was Boston's lone player representative at the postgame interview podium, in a way making him the face of the team during the postseason.
The question now is whether Green can continue to thrive in that spotlight.
The Celtics are set to enter a murky offseason, one in which the futures of veterans Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are very much up in the air. What the Celtics do know for certain is that they still have a talented young core, headlined by the sub-30 likes of Green (26), Rajon Rondo (27) and Avery Bradley (22) -- three potential starters on next season's squad. You can add next-tier players Jared Sullinger (21), Brandon Bass (28) and Courtney Lee (27) to that mix (either Sullinger or Bass is likely to start as well).
Even before the Celtics were unceremoniously bounced from the opening round of the postseason by the New York Knicks, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge had suggested his team was not capable of winning with a group that required Pierce and Garnett to be the primary options. The absence of Rondo, rehabbing from his February ACL surgery, left Boston without its quarterback and maybe its most important offensive player, something that played an obvious role in its quick postseason demise.
Ainge has since claimed the Celtics still could be a contender with Pierce and Garnett as perhaps the third and fourth options -- even if Ainge appears leery of keeping the band together. A healthy Rondo gives Boston one top-tier option, but can Green be the other?
This isn't to say Green needs to be a superstar or even perform much beyond what he showed in the postseason. The question is simply whether he can sustain what he showed over the course of an 82-game season and be part of the core the Celtics lean on.
Over the final 22 games of the season -- 16 regular-season tilts starting with that visit from Miami and six postseason games against the Knicks -- Green averaged a robust 1.039 points per play, according to Synergy Sports data. That's a number that would rank him among the 25 most efficient scorers in the league. (For the season, Green finished at 0.983 points per play, ranking in the 78th percentile.)
What's more, Green shot 48.9 percent from the floor in that 22-game span, including 49.3 percent beyond the 3-point arc, as he balanced more consistent perimeter shooting with an ability to attack the rim when matchups presented themselves. Just ask Shane Battier, who saw Green essentially hurdle his left shoulder during one noteworthy and-1 effort during that Miami game.
While Ainge had tempered expectations for Green even after the Miami outburst, suggesting that the team didn't envision him as a 25- to 30-point scorer, Green showed in the playoffs he's capable of shouldering more of the scoring burden as Garnett's shots were limited and Pierce struggled throughout the series. You can't help but wonder what the Green-Rondo combination is capable of if Rondo returns to full health and Green maintains his late-season production.
For Green, it all goes back to consistency and an ability to harness what we saw late in the season. Some of Green's early-season struggles can be attributed to his coming back from major heart surgery that caused him to miss the entire 2011-12 season. But one can't completely ignore the fact that for the first three months of the season, Green essentially was the underachiever that most labeled him while questioning the Celtics' giving him a four-year, $36 million deal over the summer.
We now know there is indeed more to Green's game. He's capable of being an offensive focal point in big-game situations. Twice in March, Celtics coach Doc Rivers drew up end-of-game plays that saw Green convert winners at Indiana (maybe one of Boston's best victories of the season) and Cleveland (in front of the doctor who performed his heart surgery).
Few are squawking about his contract after that, and the vocal masses who so loudly questioned the 2011 trade that delivered Green at the cost of Kendrick Perkins have lowered their volume.
Make no mistake, there are still areas in which Green needs to grow. His already anemic rebound rates actually dipped in the postseason (in part because Garnett was hell-bent on getting to every available carom), and his turnover rate increased, negating the uptick in assist percentage as he had the ball in his hands more often. More importantly, Green's defense seemed to regress a bit when he put a heavier emphasis on his offense, and the Celtics need him to be a two-way threat.
But the late-season glimpse was tantalizing. Heck, it might be enough to entice Ainge to keep the band together, something Green himself lobbied for when he stepped to the podium after Boston's Game 6 ouster.
"If I had a wish, everybody would be back, healthy, the way we started," Green said.
Health would be great, Jeff. But one thing is certain: The Celtics need you the way you finished.