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Thursday, February 14, 2013
Harnessing Jeff Green's energy

By Jackie MacMullan
ESPNBoston.com

Jeff Green, Dwight Howard
Jeff Green has come up with his best basketball of the season since Boston lost Rajon Rondo.

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Amid the swirl of that raucous Celtics double-overtime win against Miami on Jan. 27, a sequence unfolded that ignited a sudden flurry of activity on Jeff Green's smartphone.

It was when Green clamped onto reigning MVP LeBron James and thwarted him from barreling to the basket. The defensive stop was, in itself, a promising development, but what transpired in the immediate aftermath initiated the cascade of texts and phone calls and email messages.

Jeff Green pumped his fist.

Did you see that?

LeBron James and Jeff Green
An even better sign than Jeff Green's refusal to give LeBron James a driving lane? Green's subsequent fist pump.

"A lot of people told me, 'That's the first time we've seen you show any emotion,'" Green said.

Since Green was acquired from the Oklahoma City Thunder nearly two years ago for the wildly popular Kendrick Perkins, he has displayed a high basketball intelligence and a smooth, athletic arsenal of moves. The problem has been those moves have been maddeningly inconsistent.

Green's tenure in Boston was further muddied by revelations last winter that he needed heart surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm. The stunning diagnosis sidelined him all of last season; his recovery continues as he simultaneously battles the rigors of a grinding NBA schedule.

"I don't think people fully understand how serious it was," said Danny Ainge, Celtics head of basketball operations. "It was life-threatening."

Since Rajon Rondo's season-ending knee injury, Green has been a catalyst for a team that has gone 8-1 in the point guard's absence. Without relying on Rondo as a crutch for their transition opportunities, the Celtics have thrived by sharing the ball.

Green has averaged 13.8 points and 3.9 rebounds per game while shooting 51.1 percent during that stretch by attacking the rim, initiating transition baskets, and contributing defensive stands against elite players such as James and Kobe Bryant.

"Teams come in now, and they know Rondo and Jared [Sullinger] are out," Green said. "They're like, 'Boston's not as good as they were.'

"So our message is, 'Let's be more assertive. Let's force defenses to respect us.'"

The Boston market thirsts for athletes who bare their athletic souls and wear their emotions on their sleeves. We loved Perkins because he exhibited grit and physicality and effort. He cared, and his fans embraced him for it.

Compared to Perkins, Green is the superior basketball player in terms of skills; that is indisputable. But Celtics fans pine for Perk because he initiated contact, took charges, took names, galvanized his teammates, oozed aggression.

Until now, his replacement has fallen short in that category.

"I've been hearing that my entire career," Green admitted. "Be more aggressive."

The most glaring deficiency since Green came to Boston has been his rebounding. The Celtics were so bothered by his lack of production in that area that when they signed him to a 4-year, $36 million extension last summer, Ainge included a rebounding incentive clause in the deal.

More rebounds, more pay.

"That one area was our biggest concern," Ainge said. "To me, it's not a lack of effort. It's about bad habits.

"I don't think Jeff has ever focused on rebounding in his life, from what I can tell."

While Green acknowledged he was aware of the rebounding incentive, he said he hasn't given it much thought since the season began.

"Money comes, and money goes," Green said. "I just want to win games. I could care less how much money is riding on a rebound. It's contrary to who I am. You do that and you're thinking about the wrong things. It's just not my mindset."

The emphasis on rebounding and aggressiveness -- there's that word again -- has been hammered home by coach Doc Rivers and forward Kevin Garnett, who implores Green to look at the basket more.

Green has been advised to avoid Drewisms (aptly named after former Red Sox outfielder J.D. Drew, who stood in the batter's box and witnessed one of the most thrilling plays in baseball -- Jacoby Ellsbury stealing home -- and reacted as though he were watching someone grout his bathroom floor). Don't hesitate to express yourself, his teammates have urged Green. Show us your edge.

"I know what people want," Green said. "They want a--holes. They want KG. They want Rondo. Guys who are confrontational.

Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Jeff Green
"They want KG. They want Rondo. Guys who are confrontational," Green says of Boston fans.

"I'm the kind of guy who will talk to anybody. When I first got here, I did lots of media interviews. Rondo said to me, 'Why are you talking to them all the time? You don't have to, you know.' But that's who I am. I was taught to show respect and expect respect given back.

"I have my days like everyone else, but mostly I'm the calm guy. I'm the laid-back one."

Green was the linchpin of a Georgetown squad that advanced to the 2007 Final Four. He was the Big East player of the year and a No. 5 pick in the NBA draft, he said, because he played a team game.

"The program I came from [Georgetown] preached play defense, do your job, get your teammate open and don't be selfish," Green said. "Then I get to the NBA, and it's the total opposite.

"You can't teach someone to be more aggressive. You've got to make up your mind you're going to do it, that you are going to change the way you've played the game your whole life.

"Everyone tells me, 'Be this way.' So I've got that in my mind, but then the game starts and sometimes I revert back to what got me to the pros in the first place.

"It takes time. It's not easy. Not at all."

Teammate Jason Terry believes Green has made tremendous strides toward embracing the blue-collar style that New Englanders love.

"You have to play with a chip on your shoulder here," Terry said. "That's what Boston is all about. It's about the grit. That's not [Green], but it's in him. We've seen it, and when he plays that way, he's on a whole different planet."

Former Georgetown coach John Thompson is still a presence at Hoyas practices. His son John Thompson III was Green's college coach, and Big John spent many afternoons talking with the young player, who Thompson said "is one of the most talented we've ever had here."

"All of us have asked Jeff to be something he's not," Thompson said. "I've told him many times that he's too talented to be as humble and as modest as he is. He defers too much for a guy with his kind of ability.

"He could help his team a little more by being a little more selfish. There's nothing wrong with being selfish in the right context."

Green's detractors wanted to know why he couldn't put up the same numbers in Boston that he submitted in Oklahoma City. The answer was simple: lack of minutes. He averaged more than 30 minutes a game with the Thunder, versus 21 minutes when he first arrived in Boston. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information, if you project Green's numbers per 48 minutes from 2010-11, when he logged time for the Thunder and the Celtics, they are very similar to the previous season, when he played exclusively for Oklahoma City (see chart at right).

"People expect so much, and they don't understand the ins and outs of what's going on," Green said, shrugging. "When I got to Boston, I was coming in with two minutes left in the first quarter and then I was out five or six minutes later. You get these spurts of playing time without a lot of continuity.

"It's hard to get into a rhythm in a minute and a half when you don't touch the ball at all. I know people want me to take the ball and shoot it every time. But that's not how the game is played."

When the Celtics were struggling, Green became the lightning rod for criticism of the underachieving squad. In December, Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White joined the fray by tweeting: "Jeff Green is soft and terrible and he has no toughness. It was the worst decision to get rid of Kendrick Perkins for that guy."

His teammates bristle when Green's toughness is questioned.

"Really?" Terry said. "Have they forgotten what he's been through? We have two guys [Chris Wilcox is the other] who had heart surgery. And you expect them to be as good as new? It's not like spraining your ankle, now. Jeff just needed some time. And look at him coming on."

******

Jeff Green
Green's 12-inch scar was on display at Celtics training camp this fall.

Needles are what trigger the flashbacks.

When Jeff Green sees one, suddenly he is back in the Cleveland Clinic, connected to three drainage tubes, with a breathing apparatus jammed down his throat and multiple IVs pumping fluids into his arm.

"For the first two months [after the surgery], every time I even thought about it, it made me nauseous," Green said.

The 5½-hour procedure left him with a 12-inch scar snaking down the front of his chest. He thanks God each night before he puts his head on his pillow for allowing him to make it through an operation that actually required stopping his heart for an hour and a half while doctors repaired a leaky valve.

"If they hadn't found it, and he kept on playing," said his childhood friend Willie Jennings, "we'd be talking about a real tragedy."

For two days after his surgery, Green lay motionless in his bed, mostly unconscious. Friends came and went, but Green does not remember that. Jennings sat by his bed and waited for him to stir. When he finally did, the first thing Green hoarsely whispered was, "Get the nurse."

It was another two days before he could sit up, another two after that until he walked. Each time he coughed, he grabbed a pillow to protect his chest.

His agent, David Falk, visited and left thinking, "He can't play next season."

"It just didn't seem realistic that he'd be back," Falk said.

That was in January 2012. Two months later, Green was walking gingerly on a treadmill. By spring, he was working with a trainer Falk arranged for him. And when he was cleared in July for contact, he showed up at Georgetown's McDonough Gym to play pickup.

"He's a gym rat," Big John Thompson said. "Always has been. The thing that scared me the most once he started coming around again was how hard he was working.

"I pulled him aside and said, 'Are you all right? Should you be doing this?'"

Green's medical team told him it will be a full two years before he will completely recover. There will be tightness in his chest. There will be strange pains that will go unexplained. He will have days when he will be completely exhausted.

"It's the process of your body coming back," Green said. "It's been tough to deal with, at times. You kind of go up and down emotionally when your body gets that fatigued and you aren't even doing anything.

"Then you start playing in the NBA where everything is so high intensity, and it's kind of a double dose."

Green said he purposely has not discussed his recovery with Rivers, nor does he alert his coach on the days his exhaustion overtakes him.

"We don't talk about it," Green said. "[Rivers] knows I'm not going to tell him anyway.

"I chose to come back at the time I did. I don't want anyone to set me back on this journey. I'll deal with what I have to deal with. I'll go through what I have to go through.

"No complaints. No excuses."

Ainge said Green has generated more energy as he regains his strength. His recent spike in playing time has increased his confidence and his comfort level.

"Jeff is playing free now," Ainge said. "His strength has always been his versatility.

"I wouldn't say he's a stopper, but he can guard a lot of positions. He can spread the floor, he can shoot the 3, he can straight-line drive to the basket, he can isolate in the post.

"He's not a gunner, and most of the shots he takes are good shots. Jeff's not the guy who will get you two points every time down the floor, but there are matchups you can exploit with him."

Green said he has relished the opportunity to play alongside Paul Pierce instead of checking into the game to replace him, as he did in 2010-11. More minutes has translated into better production.

Jeff Green
Jeff Green says he's "the calm guy, the laid-back one" among his teammates, but he was fired up after dunking on Al Jefferson in November.

"It puts the onus on other teams to go big with Paul and me at the 2 and 3," Green said. "It creates mismatches, and it makes us tougher to guard, because you have two guys out there who can play on the perimeter and in the post."

While his physical recovery from his surgery is a work in progress, so is the mental healing that's required of a 26-year-old elite athlete who thought he was perfectly healthy, only to discover his life was hanging in the balance. That news left him weeping like a small child.

His friend Willie took a picture of Green following his surgery. It was a somber shot. Green lay lifeless, connected to tubes and wires and machines. He chose to tweet the photo on the anniversary of his surgery in January.

"It's just a reminder for me," Green said, "of how blessed I am, and how far I've come."

When Sullinger underwent his back operation recently, Green visited him in the hospital.

He walked past rooms of patients who had breathing tubes and IVs and drainage tubes, just like him. And, naturally, there were needles everywhere.

Green was surprised to discover he felt ... nothing.

"No nausea," he said. "That's good."

Kendrick Perkins' replacement will never overwhelm you with numbers. He isn't a lock-down defender like Bruce Bowen was, but he can match up against Kobe Bryant on one possession and defend Pau Gasol the next.

"I can do better," Jeff Green declared. "There are so many things I can do better."

He didn't pump his fist when he said it.

But it sure felt like he did.