It's difficult to write a Jeff Green story without mentioning Kendrick Perkins, so let's get that out of the way first. Green's 43-point performance vs. Miami Monday night was no more an anomaly than a trend. It wasn't an affirmation of the deal that sent Perkins to Oklahoma City. Danny Ainge was not sitting in his second-row courtside seat last night seeking validation and thinking, "Phew, I was right."
Ainge long ago made the decision that the Celtics needed to get younger and faster, committing to live through Green's highs and lows. The tradeoff was losing Perkins, an eminently root-able big man who wouldn't look out of place behind the wheel of a mixer at Boston Sand and Gravel. Perkins was integral in Boston's championship run in 2008, but he's shooting 46 percent from the floor this season despite possessing an arsenal of hook shots and layups that don't extend much beyond five feet. His 5.5 rebounds per game average is his lowest since the 2006-07 season. The league is trending toward smaller lineups, and Perkins is starting to get left behind.
If you're still pining for the next tough-as-nails, hard-nosed Boston basketball player, you can stop looking in Oklahoma City. The Celtics have a few of them right on the roster, starting with shooting guard Avery Bradley, who should make the All-Defensive team sooner rather than later. Teams loathe playing against him. He tried to gut it out through two separated shoulders last season. He's made himself into a very good NBA player at the age of 22.
Asked before Monday night's game if Bradley was a pest, Heat guard Dwyane Wade said, "No. He's a really good, really complete defensive basketball player." Asked if he hated the Celtics, Wade replied simply and affirmatively, "Yes."
That the Celtics are still hated speaks to their ability to form a defensive identity without Perkins, or really any dominant center. Since Bradley's return the Celtics have climbed to fourth in the NBA in defensive rating, allowing 102.1 points per 100 possessions. They were first in the league in that category last season, second the season before, and fifth the year before that in their final season with Perkins. Kevin Garnett is obviously a big force in that, but so are Green, Courtney Lee, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry. Since Perkins' departure, defense has not been an issue.
It's the offense that's been the problem, which is where Green comes in. It's taken him some time to adjust to Boston. When he arrived he saw his minutes drastically reduced, then saw his life flash before his eyes when he needed surgery to repair an aortic aneurism. We've seen maddening glimpses of Green, but he had yet to put it all together until Monday night, when he was positively brilliant. Green not only found his range, he also got to the basket time and again for layups. That's a sustainable strategy for a 6-foot-9-inch player who's quicker than every power forward he faces and taller than the small forwards he matches up with. Green carried the Celtics Monday night, matching the combined point total of LeBron James and Wade through three quarters.
"He was aggressive," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said afterward. "He was making tough plays, and he was putting a lot of pressure on our defense. Give him credit. The guy's been through a lot."
Celtics fans like to put Green through the ringer, but they're soon going to be faced with Green and Bradley as the team's core. We got a glimpse of the future Monday night with Garnett out due to illness. The Celtics still played tough defense, holding Miami under 50 percent shooting. They could have used Garnett on some missed defensive rotations and for some easy 20-footers, but you can still see the system working without him. Add Jared Sullinger to the mix and the Celtics have a young, entertaining nucleus for years to come.
Where does that leave Rajon Rondo? The Celtics clearly missed him Monday night. As much of a whiz Bradley is on defense, he struggles against ball pressure. Miami denied even basic passes outside the 3-point arc and confounded the Celtics into 20 turnovers. That pressure wouldn't phase Rondo, and it would take pressure off of Bradley to do it all.
It's almost good that we see the Celtics working without Rondo, not just because we get to see a little of what Rondo isn't (the Celtics do need to push the ball more) but because we get to see what else the other Celtics are. It turns out Bradley and Lee and Terry all excel at two-way basketball. It turns out Green can score when given the opportunity. The Celtics can make it a game against anybody without their best players, a sign that the nucleus here – even without Rondo and Garnett and Sullinger – is stronger than the ones in Charlotte and Detroit and Phoenix.
In the Celtics locker room after the game, Green didn't act surprised by his performance. While he may not have expected that exact output on that stage, Green knows what kind of ability he has. Like most NBA players, he doesn't lack for confidence.
"The next game is going to be a lot different than this game, so I just have got to figure out another way," said Green.
That's the challenge of being an elite NBA player. They're not all going to be this pretty. Someday soon, Green's going to win a game shooting 2-for-9 from the field but taking and making the last big shot. It's a process, but at least now we have a glimpse of what the end result might look like.