As Jeff Green gathered the ball continuously in the second half Friday against Fenerbahce Ulker in Istanbul and either scored or reached the free throw line, Celtics coach Doc Rivers exhaled and grinned in relief.
Not only had Green returned from surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm, but he was producing off the bench, a sign that Rivers can rely on the offense to continue flowing when Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, or Brandon Bass are on the bench.
The Celtics’ bench has been among the worst in the NBA offensively over the past few years, and that lack of production has had a domino effect on the starting lineup. The more injuries to and subpar performances by the bench, the more minutes and pressure on the starters to perform — and each of the last two years the Celtics have fizzled down the stretch of playoff games because of fatigue.
In Game 7 of last June’s Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics were dominated by the Miami Heat in the fourth quarter. The Celtics were outscored, 28-15, in the fourth and received all but 2 points that night from their starters.
Although the bench was consistently solid on defense, Rivers preached that his team needed scoring. The Celtics were becoming the 1990s Knicks, a great defensive team that needed to play ugly to be successful. While Rivers enjoys an occasional defensive struggle, he realized that for the Celtics to overcome the Heat – with several players capable of 30-point games each night — his club had to acquire offense.
So president of basketball operations Danny Ainge re-signed Green, drafted Jared Sullinger, and signed Jason Terry and Courtney Lee. The three veterans in that group have proven capable of having big offensive games, and Sullinger has been a volume scorer since his AAU days.
In the Celtics’ two games in Europe, Green, Sullinger, and Terry each had offensive streaks, which allowed Garnett and Pierce valuable rest.
“Oh I’d like to get comfortable with that,” Rivers said. “That was terrific [to see the bench thrive]. With our team, we’re just going to keep searching. In the past, we had to search for the right starting lineup. I think this year we have to search for the right second lineup and we may take a starter out of the starting lineup and play him in the second lineup because it may fit him better. It will be interesting. We’re just going to keep moving guys around.”
Rivers repeatedly called for Green to get the ball in both games of the trip to help him get his confidence and rhythm. The consensus so far in camp is that Green is the Celtics’ X-factor, a hungry, talented, and versatile player who was a starter for years in Oklahoma City and is accustomed to carrying a portion of the offensive load.
The Celtics were robbed of seeing him with a full training camp last season because of his condition, and his addition is the equivalent of signing a front-line free agent.
“Jeff is very important for us, I try to stress that to him every day,” point guard Rajon Rondo said. “I don’t want to put too much pressure on him but he’s going to be key for us this year. He’s versatile, he can play the [small forward], he can play the [power forward]. I think Jeff is capable of [defending] the [point guard] through the [power forward].
“It’s not just going to be Jeff, but he’s going to play a key role in our success.”
With Avery Bradley out with double shoulder surgery until perhaps December, Lee is expected to be the starting shooting guard, but when Bradley returns, Lee and Terry will be the first guards off the bench if Rivers decides to start Bradley.
The Celtics’ depth is apparent, with players such as Darko Milicic, Jason Collins, and Chris Wilcox prepared to spell Garnett at center. Milicic was a pleasant surprise on the trip with his defensive prowess, and Wilcox proved last season before his was felled by a heart issue that he can run the floor with Rondo and score easy baskets.
Despite being somewhat limited because of the new collective bargaining agreement and the re-signing of Garnett, Ainge has supplemented the bench to the point that he and Rivers hope it’s a strength.
“I think we’re deep at every position,” Ainge said. “We have a lot of depth, particularly at the big position. That was an emphasis in the offseason, to bring in guys who can help our veterans, and we think we were able to do that.”