In what has been an utterly unusual first round series between the Celtics and Bulls—one that has seen the road team win all four games—Gerald Green starting and erupting in Game 4 on Sunday seemed almost fitting. Green spent the first half sinking three-pointers and boosting Boston to an early lead. At one point early in the second quarter, he had 16 points and the Bulls had 21.
Yes, the same Gerald Green the Celtics drafted just outside the lottery 12 years ago. The same Gerald Green who wowed and flummoxed fans in Beantown for two years with earth-shattering dunks and bone-headed decisions.
But it’s also not the same Gerald Green. A journeyman career has turned the swingman, who spent time overseas and in the D-League, into a veteran much different than the raw athlete who entered the Association in 2005. The 31-year-old has turned himself into more than just a leaper. His lack of focus and defensive indifference once drove coaches wild and led him out of the league, with his road back into the NBA weaving through international pitstops in Russia and China.
To understand how remarkable it is that Green is starting meaningful playoff games for the top-seeded Celtics, consider this: he went a full decade between starts with the Celtics. Green played in 113 games in his first two years in Boston, starting 29 of them and dunking constantly. Once, he threw down an absurd tomahawk off-the-backboard alley-oop delivered by then-high flyer, Tony Allen, at the TD Garden in ‘06.
But he did not add much else on the court and became a throwaway trade piece in the deal that brought Kevin Garnett and Boston's first taste of real basketball glory since the 1980’s. While the Celtics put up a banner, Green blew out a candle on a cupcake at a dunk contest and bounced from Minnesota to Houston to Dallas. Within two years, he had left the league. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said Green did not “understand the game of basketball.”
Then came Green’s NBA sabbatical and basketball growing-up period. After going abroad, he returned to the D-League, got inked to a 10-day contract by the Nets and never looked back. By 2014, after a season in Indiana, Green was scoring nearly 16 points per game on a 48-win Suns team. Though still far from a Swiss Army Knife, the former dunk specialist turned into a player who could pitch in efficient perimeter offense and good-enough defense.
Green finally made it back to Boston this year, after one more stop in Miami. He is home again, even if the Celtics have been through multiple iterations since his younger years. He came off the bench in all 47 of his appearances during his Celtics return tour this winter, narrowly eclipsing double-digit minutes per game in those appearances. All in all, Green seemed destined to become a footnote on Boston’s season.
But then coach Brad Stevens turned to Green to start Game 3 after the team’s offense dried up in two home losses to open the series, a nervy floor-spacing choice by the fourth-year coach. The wing provided some spark in Game 3, pitching in eight points, and the Bulls offense ground to a halt without the injured Rajon Rondo, leading to a blowout Boston win. Starting again in Game 4, Green delivered a more significant jolt in Boston’s 104–95 win, adding seven rebounds to go along with 18 points in just 23 minutes. Along the way, Green reminded everyone that he still has serious hops when he left a corner three well short but collected the ricochet and slammed in a jam befitting a former NBA Slam Dunk champion.
Rondo, a teammate of Green's in Boston a basketball lifetime ago, watched from the opposite bench nursing his hand as Green stole the show. Rondo and Green, two of the five remaining active players from the 2006–07 Celtics roster, have had their handprints all over the series.
After the Celtics won Game 4, Green told the press, “Coach called my number at a time where I didn’t even think he’d call my number.”Green was hardly the only one. Perhaps even more unlikely was the simple fact that Green was on the Celtics roster to begin with, ready to continue what he started more than a decade ago.