CLEVELAND — He was there, somewhere, in the crowd, just a face to the thousands gathered at Quicken Loans Arena but much, much more than that to Jeff Green.
Where, though? The Celtics forward scanned the crowd all game, searching for the man he said he owes everything to, the man responsible for Green even playing here, in the NBA, on a Wednesday night, collecting millions to play the game he loves.
And then the buzzer howled after Green beat it with a game-winning layup. And the scoreboard glowed the final result: Boston 93, Cleveland 92. And disappointed Cavaliers fans filed out in droves of disbelief while the Celtics celebrated like mad, having stolen a hard-fought win.
And then Green found him, Dr. Lars Svensson, the man who performed open-heart surgery on Green at the Cleveland Clinic nearly a year ago.
Svensson had seen Green play here before, but this was different. It was special, because Svensson witnessed the man whose life and career he helped resurrect win a game on its very last play. They shared a warm embrace. Svensson told him he was proud. A happy Green reflected.
“Just a year ago and a couple months, I was under that bright light with him working on me,” said the forward, who scored 21 points and grabbed seven rebounds.
“It’s a blessing to be here.”
Then, a moment later, Green smiled and said, “That was for him.”
It was quite a performance and finish to dedicate to anyone. Green rescued the Celtics, snapping their five-game losing streak on a night when Kevin Garnett and Courtney Lee sat out with left ankle issues.
Boston did close the game on a 21-6 run after trailing by as many as 14 in the second half, but the final basket was the cherry.
The Celtics trailed, 90-89, with 1:43 left. Cleveland knocked down a pair of free throws to stretch its lead, but Paul Pierce cut it back to 1 on a 10-foot jumper with 32 seconds left.
The Cavaliers’ Shaun Livingston missed a short jumper on the other end, giving the ball back to the Celtics with 9.2 seconds left.
Coach Doc Rivers called a 20-second timeout.
Out of the timeout, the ball swung to Pierce, who was closely guarded near the right baseline by Cleveland swingman Alonzo Gee.
Gee bodied Pierce up and then poked the ball out of bounds with 2.1 seconds left.
The officials went to the monitor to check and make sure they got the call right. As they gathered, the Celtics regrouped in a huddle.
Inside that huddle, Rivers looked at Pierce and Green, and Green, who three weeks ago hit a winning layup one state over, in Indiana, looked right back at Rivers.
“When you’re in a timeout and guys are staring at you, they’re telling you they want the ball,” Rivers said later. “Most guys look down, because they don’t want the ball, but he clearly wanted the ball. I think I sensed that. I think everyone sensed that.”
Rivers called a play for Green, and Pierce was OK with that, even though he usually is the late-game option.
“When you have a Hall of Famer like Paul who accepts that, it gives you confidence,” Green said.
The officials confirmed their call: Boston had possession.
Avery Bradley inbounded the ball. The Celtics planned to run a misdirection play, making it seem as though Pierce was going to get the last shot, with Jason Terry the second option.
“And the whole time, it was really for Jeff to pop off of [Terry’s] screen,” said Rivers, who added that they believed Green had a mismatch he could exploit.
Pierce rolled toward the baseline nearest to Bradley, Terry faked like he was going for the ball in the middle and then screened down on Green’s man, while Green popped out towards the top of the key, free and wide open.
Bradley fed him a pass leading toward the basket. Green had a clear path, and he took one dribble as he stepped inside the arc and charged.
Three Cavaliers closed, but Green’s svelte body — the one complete with a scar running down his chest — raced right through them, soaring to the rim.
With his right hand, he laid the ball high off the glass with a few 10ths of a second to spare, and it rattled true as the clock struck triple zeros.
Green flexed, shouted. Bradley was the first to hug him, Pierce was the second.
The fans sat stunned, as did the Cavaliers, who lost their sixth consecutive game.
Cleveland played without Kyrie Irving (shoulder) and was led by Wayne Ellington, who scored 16 points.
The Celtics played terribly for most of the night until their defense came alive late, sparking an eventual game-winning run. Brandon Bass was key, with a season-high 22 points.
“Sometimes it takes games like this to get you out of a rut,” said Pierce, who had 19 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists, and 7 turnovers. “I’m happy the way we fought back.
“We could’ve tanked it in. It seemed like we were mentally fatigued, physically fatigued, and we just somehow found a way.
“Regardless of Cleveland’s record, these type of wins can really pull you together, especially this late in the season.”
A win that can pull you together.
Such a phrase was fitting Wednesday night, when Green won before the man who pulled his life back together, giving Green another chance at everything.
“I’m thankful, man,” Green said. “I’m thankful to have him, the way he performed his procedure. I’m lucky to be back on the court – and I owe it all to him.”