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Sunday basketball notes

Green has jumped at his latest opportunity

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / April 8, 2012
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It’s been a humbling road back for Gerald Green. The first-round Celtics draft pick seven years ago expected his athleticism and penchant for game-breaking plays to carry him to stardom. The problem was Green disregarded nearly everything that was crucial to his success.

He was not mature enough to understand that jumping ability and high-flying dunks aren’t enough to stay in the NBA, not when you can’t comprehend defensive concepts.

For years, Green felt the brunt of a reputation that he was just a sideshow as teams signed and released him. He played in Russia, China, and the Development League, experiencing a basketball metamorphosis through his journeys and rediscovering his love for the game.

After he got the love back, Green had to convince NBA teams his approach was more serious and professional. He had to capitalize on his chance to return and refrain from pouting. So he accepted his release from the Lakers in training camp and joined the NBADL Los Angeles D-Fenders in December, playing home games in front of family and friends at the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo, Calif.

After averaging 19.1 points for the D-Fenders, Green drew interest from the Nets. His mental approach finally caught up with his still freakish athleticism. He signed two 10-day contracts with the Nets and then was asked to stay for the rest of the season after averaging 12.1 points per game off the bench.

After a three-year absence, Green is back where he always felt he belonged. He is focused on staying for the long term, blending newfound basketball IQ with athletic ability.

“I just want to make sure I don’t take things for granted like I used to,’’ he said last week. “I just decided to listen to my coaches, listen to my teammates, and I just try to every day get better because I know in my mind that tomorrow’s not promised, tomorrow’s not guaranteed. That’s the difference between me now and when I first came into the league.’’

Green was the 18th overall pick in 2005 by the Celtics, a raw but talented swingman from Houston, part of the final class of high school products to enter the draft. After playing 32 games as a rookie, Green began to flourish for the struggling Celtics and averaged 10.4 points in his second season. But that merely allowed team president Danny Ainge to include him in the Kevin Garnett deal with Minnesota.

The Timberwolves traded him to the Rockets, where the feel-good story lasted just one game and four minutes. The Rockets waived him just days after the trade and he spent a 38-game stint with the Mavericks before they passed on re-signing him. Team owner Mark Cuban publicly questioned Green’s basketball intelligence.

Green then began a humiliating trek through Russia and China, playing with lower-division teams and being released by his Chinese club last December after just two months. Generally, banished NBA players can find refuge overseas, but Green was making a dubious name for himself.

But he managed to maintain his confidence.

“This is still a dream of mine to play in the NBA,’’ he said. “Every day that I wake up now, I thank the Lord for giving me another opportunity to come to practice with the Nets or to play in the game because three years ago I wasn’t in the mix. For me, I’m just so thankful. I didn’t know if I was going to get back in the league or not, I didn’t know. I knew I wasn’t going to stop; playing in the NBA was a dream of mine. I couldn’t stop until my legs were cut off or something.’’

While Celtics coach Doc Rivers attempted to serve as a positive role model for Green, Nets coach Avery Johnson has reaffirmed those professional values and a 26-year-old Green is heeding those words.

“He’s always making sure that I am getting things right, he gives me so much confidence that it makes it easier for me on the court,’’ Green said. “I don’t feel like I have a coach that will pull me if I make a mistake.’’

And Green hasn’t wasted any time reminding those who forgot about his stunning leaping ability. He has earned a consistent spot on highlight shows for two breathtaking dunks, one on which it appeared his head sailed above the rim before he threw it down. Now, Green has added substance to that flash. He is a 49 percent shooter from the field and has used his length to become a better defender.

The messages that Rivers attempted to instill seven years ago are now coming to fruition. Green has regrets about his time with the Celtics and relationship with Rivers, who is notoriously hard on younger players.

“Doc was good to me, he rode me,’’ Green said. “He would say, ‘Gerald, it’s the little things that count. You don’t have to make the big play or the home run play.’ I didn’t understand that. Doc was real big on teaching. It was hard for me to get things quick. It was hard for me to understand the defensive rotations. I think I’m a whole lot better player now because I’m a lot smarter than when I was with Doc. Doc told me how things were going to be, and I didn’t listen.

“Sometimes you’ve got to learn the hard way. I still don’t regret any decisions that I made, going into the league, I regret what I did when I was in the league, not trying to get better, taking days off, not preparing myself, not being a professional. I got a second chance and I’ll do everything possible not to ruin this this time.’’

NEW GUARD

Thunder have their attention

The Thunder are in the unusual position of being both the hunter of teams such as the Lakers and Spurs in the West, and the hunted because they own the conference’s best record and are favored to make the Finals.

The Thunder recently routed the Bulls and Heat at home, before a brutal rematch against the Heat in Miami on Wednesday, which the Thunder lost, 98-93. Last week, it was Kobe Bryant saying the Lakers have to judge themselves against the Thunder, and now it’s LeBron James.

That’s humbling to a franchise that has had only flashes of success since moving from Seattle.

“You’re never satisfied, but we’re getting better,’’ said Kevin Durant, an MVP candidate. “We have to gain confidence game by game. We’re figuring out what it takes to win collectively. Nothing is ever a finished product for us. I’m not satisfied at all. We’ve got a long ways to go and we’ve got big goals, and hopefully we’ll achieve them.’’

The Thunder are set up to contend for years. Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Kendrick Perkins are signed to long-term deals. And Jeff Green was traded to the Celtics because the Thunder wanted to re-sign Sixth Man of the Year candidate James Harden to an extension.

Their ascent has occurred faster than expected, with Westbrook’s rapid development into an All-Star and the stunning improvement of power forward Serge Ibaka.

“Sometimes you feel like the hunted,’’ Durant said. “Because I feel like a lot of people are looking at us [with skepticism] as a team, which is fair because we really haven’t done anything. We all play with a chip on our shoulder. That’s the type of team we are.’’

The Thunder have capitalized on astute draft decisions and the fact the other Western Conference powers are aging. The Trail Blazers were supposed to compete with the Thunder for the next decade, but with the injuries to Greg Oden and Brandon Roy, they are back in rebuilding mode.

The Grizzlies are improving but have not reached the Thunder’s level because of inconsistency and a series of injuries. So, the Thunder are left alone to take on the graybeards, and Durant fully realizes they won’t receive true respect until they knock off the Big Three - Lakers, Spurs, Mavericks - in the playoffs.

“I think sometimes when people look at us, they don’t look at us as an elite team,’’ he said. “That’s where we want to get to. So we’ve got to keep working every day, control what we can control, and we’ll see what happens at the end of the year.”

TROUBLE CENTER

Howard is in the middle

Wasn’t it just three weeks ago that all was magical in Orlando? Dwight Howard decided to stay for at least another season, silencing rumors that had him headed to 25 of the other 29 teams in a trade. Apparently, Howard had made a commitment to the city and the team. He wanted to stay, and hopefully with his loyalty would come significant changes to the roster. And, as we have found out, to the coaching staff.

Howard basically threw coach Stan Van Gundy under the bus by asking management to fire him, and then Van Gundy found space under the tires for Howard when he revealed such news before the team’s shootaround on Thursday.

Howard subsequently denied he asked that Van Gundy be fired, and Van Gundy said he was told of Howard’s request by upper management. What this shows is that there could be a major housecleaning this summer, with everybody gone except for Howard.

General manager Otis Smith has tried using shortcuts to build a winner, and besides their run to the Finals in 2009, it has failed miserably, with retread after retread funneling through Orlando tabbed as a capable complement to Howard.

Vince Carter, Gilbert Arenas, and Rashard Lewis are barely hanging on in the NBA, while Hedo Turkoglu has not been the same since leaving Orlando the first time to sign with the Raptors. The Magic dropped their fifth straight game Thursday night, and a national television audience witnessed the team’s dysfunction with Howard, one of the league’s most unstoppable forces when he’s right, scoring 8 points in 40 minutes.

Howard’s lack of focus has been a major issue this season. At times, he appears to be going through the motions and getting by on his talent and athleticism.

“Everything has changed for the bad in the last two weeks,’’ Van Gundy said. “That has to be the only focus right now. We got three weeks and we got tough guys in there and we’ll be fine. Things tend to snowball like this. You get discouraged and nothing’s going right and then people start pressing.

“I thought Dwight played really, really hard. You can ask him, but I don’t think [the controversy] had anything to do with anything [on the court].’’

Van Gundy most certainly is going to be removed after the season, and because of these unusual circumstances likely won’t have trouble getting another job.

But for the final 10 games of the season, he has to get the Magic to play well and avoid the collapse of last season.

Van Gundy appears to realize he and Howard can coexist no longer than the next few weeks, but he’s trying to remain professional.

“This is where it all started, but the first response is that’s not important right now. What Dwight wants is not important right now,’’ Van Gundy said. “This is very difficult right now, but yeah, we can come out of this.’’

Point guard Jameer Nelson, who has had a dismal season, perhaps because of Howard’s desire to play with New Jersey’s Deron Williams, came out in support of Van Gundy.

“I love Stan as a coach. Since he’s been here he’s helped my career out tremendously,’’ Nelson said. “He wants to win. You have a lot of distractions in life. We’re playing with guys out.’’

Nelson is the closest thing the Magic have to a true leader, and perhaps that’s the issue. Their franchise player would rather appear in commercials and NBA promotions than lead the team, yet Nelson still offered support of Howard.

“The guy is the best big man in the league,’’ Nelson said. “He’s going to take some heat for things. We’re all about sticking together and supporting one another.’’

Layups

Spurs forward Tim Duncan is playing on an expiring contact, and there were early indications that he may retire after the season. But while in Boston on Wednesday, Duncan said he would like to return for another season or “until they send me home.’’ Duncan obviously is not the cornerstone he once was, but he remains a productive player when being limited to about 28 minutes per game. Both Duncan and Kevin Garnett will be free agents this summer and could return to their teams on reduced contracts . . . Two players for Celtics fans to watch as the draft approaches - University of Washington point guard Tony Wroten and swingman Terrence Ross. Ross is the more polished and likely a target of the Celtics. He is a pure scorer with solid range and brimming athleticism. Wroten should have stayed in school for another year, but he is a lefthanded playmaker who could flourish into a star . . . The Grizzlies sent former Kansas guard Josh Selby to the Reno Bighorns of the Development League. Selby was considered a future star coming out of high school, but bolted from Kansas after his freshman season . . . Wizards forward Chris Singleton tried to make a forgettable season memorable by spending $10,000 on Mega Millions tickets. Needless to say, the rookie from Florida State did not win . . . Eric Gordon returned to action for the first time in three months in helping the Hornets beat the Nuggets on Wednesday. Gordon had undergone arthroscopic surgery on his right knee and could easily have sat out the remainder of the season for the lottery-bound Hornets. However, he is a restricted free agent this summer and likely wanted to show teams he’s healthy. He was the centerpiece of the Chris Paul deal for the Hornets, who are expected to match any offer . . . The Knicks admonished the New York Daily News for implying the team withheld information about Jeremy Lin’s torn meniscus so it could sell more playoff tickets. The club pointed out it sold out games for years before Lin arrived.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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