PHOENIX — It’s nights like these that leave Jeff Green’s biggest detractors at a loss for words. He uses his large hands to palm the ball, while determining his next move like an artist pondering the next stroke. He has an improving jumper with a high, unorthodox release, and his dunks are vicious, like a one-handed hammer.
With Kevin Garnett getting a much-needed night off and the Celtics desperately needing a win in their most winnable game of this five-game trip, Green delivered his best performance as a Celtic, tallying 31 points in 39 minutes with 7 rebounds, 4 assists, and 5 blocked shots.
The undersized Celtics coasted to a 113-88 win over the Suns Friday night, regaining momentum after losing the first two games of the post All-Star Game break. Green was especially disappointed in himself after his 15-point, 5-for-12 shooting performance in the 113-99 loss Wednesday to the Los Angeles Lakers.
He’s been wildly inconsistent this season, his first following surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm, but he has begun to develop a pattern of positive contributions. Since the injuries to Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger and Leandro Barbosa, Green realizes there is added responsibility on his shoulders.
He can no longer camouflage himself behind the Big Three. On Friday, Garnett was absent and Paul Pierce scored 8 points in 26 minutes, gliding out of the locker room after the game without talking to reporters, leaving the stage for others.
The workload was left to Green, who scored 13 points in the first period as the Celtics raced to a 16-3 lead they would never relinquish. The Celtics played tiny, with 6-foot-8-inch Brandon Bass at center and Green matched against burly Luis Scola. Green made scoring look effortless. He took Scola away from the basket, used his length to create space, and went for a streaking layup or jumper.
Seeing Green’s full arsenal shows why team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge chose to sign him to a four-year, $36 million contract in July. With Pierce erratic this season and Garnett unable to carry the team as he did in previous years, the Celtics need assistance and Green is providing it.
In 10 games this month, Green is averaging 16.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2 blocked shots, 55.3 percent shooting and is shooting 50 percent from the 3-point line. These numbers are light years from the single-digit, uneven performances from earlier this season that left impatient Celtics fans asking to move him for a warm body.
“I just try to stay within the team but it’s tough, because you got guys out and that’s the first mind-set, ‘I’ve got to step up,’ ” Green said. “You can’t think that way because it becomes individual basketball. You got to find your spots on the floor. You’ve got to be aggressive but you got to pick when and when not to be aggressive and when you share the ball.”
Celtics coach Doc Rivers has been pleading for this edition of Green to make his presence felt. For two years, the coaching staff has pleaded with him to be aggressive, play through his mistakes and show no fear in being aggressive.
Plagued by foul trouble, Pierce never got into the flow of Friday night’s game, taking just five shots. So it was up to Green to emerge as the offensive force.
“He knew he didn’t play well against the Lakers; he was really down after that game,” Rivers said. “He thought he didn’t play well. He voiced that. You didn’t know if he was going to play well [Friday] but you knew he was going to be focused and play hard. The fact that he played well was the gravy.
“He’s a matchup nightmare. At [small forward] he can post you and at [power forward] he has speed and when he’s making his jumper like he was making it today, then it’s pretty much a tough night for whoever’s guarding him.”
Rivers said he talked with backup center Chris Wilcox about playing more assertive and producing more quality minutes and Wilcox delivered 14 points and eight rebounds. The same should be said for Green, who has to make more of his playing time and take more authority because he is one of the few potentially dominant players on the roster.
“It’s all a work in progress, nothing came easy for me,” Green said. “Me starting off in high school as a center, me going to college and starting off as a center and gradually making my way to small forward, coming into the league starting at power forward and now I’m back at small forward, it hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to work at everything, so it’s just me being in the gym. I got great coaches willing to help and tell me where I need to be.”
Green won’t be this effective every night but the Celtics need him to be this aggressive and passionate about making an impact. Garnett and Pierce would welcome the relief, and that showed when a smiling Pierce passed on interviews and headed into the Phoenix evening after Green allowed him to take a respite.