Gerald Green has been no stranger to the inconsistencies in opportunity that life as an NBA player affords. He was traded from the Celtics after two seasons, played games on seven more teams and braved seasons in Russia and China trying to forge his way back into the league in 2009-2010.
Green, more than most, was ready for the sporadic Brad Stevens rotations that would leave him buried on the bench then called into starting action in the NBA playoffs 10 years after his last start in green. What looked like a reclamation project became a test in leadership for the 31-year-old Green, and he passed like he had a green light.
It was December 30, 2016 and Green had not played in 17 of the Celtics’ last 25 games. At this point he seemed to factor little into their plans, firmly seated on the bench seat closest the locker room and averaging just 10.8 minutes per game in the 16 contests in which he did appear. In this one against the Miami Heat, he’d only see five minutes.
There weren’t many vocal complaints or a visual dismay in Green’s expression. The only order that came shouting out of his mouth wasn’t for more playing time, but for a warm beverage on that 30-degree December night. Later, he witnessed close friend Isaiah Thomas bury 29 fourth-quarter points to win the game.
Gerald Green just had a hot chocolate delivered to him at end of the bench as 3Q began. "Is that my hot chocolate?" he said. "HELL YEAH!!"— Marc D'Amico (@Marc_DAmico) December 31, 2016
Gerald Green and his hot chocolate: The saga continues. pic.twitter.com/plAUO3D4ok— Tom Westerholm (@Tom_NBA) December 31, 2016
All of Green’s experience around the world did not stifle his humor, which (along with his shamrock-engraved hairstyle) provided enough laughs for a full season. This was not Gerald Wallace though, providing a veteran presence and grins via pregame half-court heaves despite his inability to play. It wasn’t Evan Turner either, who carved out such a massive role that it took ball time away from a developing Marcus Smart. Green was the happy middle ground the Celts coveted and needed at this point in their development as a team.
Green was able to step aside and jump in interchangeably and had no issue with either role. Through large gaps in playing time, according to those around the team, his approach did not hinder during the downturns in minutes.
“It’s been cool,” he said on his role after the Celtics lost in five games in the East Finals. “It is different, this is the first time I’m being the oldest on the team, I try to embrace the fact and try to impact the game without even playing. Just always trying to make sure young guys know their spots defensively, making sure they know their coverages, making sure they know the scouting report, just making sure they’re locked in. Not even younger guys but veterans too. Making sure everybody knows what they’re supposed to do...if they’re doing a good job I try to encourage them, if not I try to pick them up.”
That was the minimum the Celts could have asked for after cutting R.J. Hunter after his rookie season in favor of retaining Green and James Young at the bottom of their roster. It was a move that stirred up necessary discussion before games started, but Green’s season yielded sound results for the 11 minutes per game he was given. Green’s 5.6 points, 1.8 rebounds and 35% three-point shooting surpassed Hunter’s rookie production in a similar role the year before. With the Bulls, Hunter only found nine minutes all season.
The whole debate did not end up becoming a big deal in the context of the Celtics’ regular season, where they cruised to the No. 1 seed in the East regardless, but come playoff time things got wacky. Boston was down 2-0 to Chicago, they were struggling to rebound and make shots, and some radical calls from the outside were calling for Brad Stevens’s job if the Cs were to get swept by an eight seed.
They needed an adjustment, and options ranging from Jonas Jerebko to Tyler Zeller to Kelly Olynyk were tossed around to solve the Celtics’ rebounding woes. Stevens went in the complete opposite direction with a move nobody saw coming: starting Green for the first time all year.
He had only started 18 NBA games since 2014, but Stevens wasn’t asking much. Green would be poised with swooping in through boxouts to secure boards with his leaping ability, as well as hitting shots to give Boston an early boost before he would be rotated out. Green’s presence simply represented a nice change of pace for the Celtics’ stagnating starting lineup.
“Specifically, Gerald’s had a lot of times this year where we’ve gone from not playing to having to play significant minutes during a stretch, and he’s been pretty consistent with his ability to produce in those minutes,” Stevens said in April. He added that he noticed an uptick in Green’s practice performance toward the tail-end of the regular season. For a team that wants to go small anyway, he said, Green’s “length and athleticism” was an appealing option.
There always seemed to be an upside anytime Green played. Given his shooting ability, there was always the possibility of something great happening, and in Game Four in Chicago something great did indeed happen.
Two minutes in, he received a dish from Isaiah Thomas: splash. Over one minute later, another pass from Thomas: splash. Five and a half minutes into the game he had five rebounds. With five minutes left in the frame, he caught a pass fading away from Al Horford and nailed it.
There was something magical to Green’s first quarter in that game. It was that next level he was capable of, and it felt like every time he got the ball he was going to make it. Boston had missed that guy two years prior and though it was only for nine minutes of one game in the playoffs, it set the base of a win that would tie the series going back to Boston.
After a 0-2 start to the playoffs, the Celtics would not lose again until game three vs. the Wizards.
Green was not a Turner replacement by any means, but they needed a vocal leader in the void he left leaving for Portland. When his supportive and hilarious bench presence transitioned into playoff production it became the perfect storm.
Of all the Celtics’ free agents this summer, Green may be more likely to return than any given his willingness to play in any capacity and his low price tag. For now, it sounds like that’s his main intention after finally coming full circle on a career of failures and bouncing back. After the season, he said he likes to finish what he starts.
“My main focus is trying to come back here and try to help this team win a championship in whatever way I can...I do feel at home here.”