Return of the Green: In Milwaukee, C’s Start to Discover New Identity

One out of eighty-two. To be exact, one games represents 1.219% of the regular season schedule. One game in early November. The season, as you know, ends in mid-April. But when you follow a team closely, the beginning of the season always seems to mean more than those late December or early January games. November is the time to set the tone for the season. San Antonio has done it with two last-second road-wins against their Western Conference rivals Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Lakers. The tone is that bass line (not baseline) that pulses underneath each game, that zero-floor that a team gravitates back towards every few games throughout the march of 82. How is a team’s character or identity formed? Through a series of especially difficult tests. In the fourth-quarters of close games. The toughest moments come on the road, where the team does not get the borderline foul s called and the crowd is screaming for the other team. For the league’s top-half, these road games determine the difference between home court in the playoffs and battling for the last few seeds. For the leagues cellar-dwellars, like Washington, these games determine the difference between extended futility and mediocrity. At least the mediocre can delude themselves into hoping for a run at the 8th seed.

The 2012-13 Boston Celtics are still forming their identity. Of the ten players who make up the team’s rotation until Avery Bradley’s late-December return, only four were involved last year. The other six players, none of whom has a reputation for selfish play or egomania, are busy sorting out their roles. Darko Milicic injures his wrist in the preseason and his minutes go to the energetic Chris Wilcox. Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger take turns in the starting lineup. Courtney Lee worries about a few three-pointers that rim out, despite his career average of 38%.
It used to be uncommon for a team many predict to finish 2nd or 3rd in their conference to go through this kind of feeling-out process. AFter Miami and the Lakers have gone through dramatic shake-ups, we forget how important a team’s system can be to it’s success. Tom Thibodeau’s success with the Bulls, even without Derrick Rose, is testament to their depth and the defensive system he has in place.

Rajon Rondo, the team’s heartbeat at the point, is learning the idiosyncrasies of each of these six members. In addition, four of the six (Green and Wilcox being the exceptions) are figuring out a new defensive scheme. The early season schedule has forced Boston to go without full practices for the last week. Practice is the time when these new additions would be given lessons in spacing, timing, rotating and strategy.

As a result, the team’s performance in the first five games of the season was less than stellar. Jeff Green’s recent four-year contract extension –$36 million for a player of his versatility and upside is reasonable—makes him an obvious target. Green’s temperament is more like Lee’s than Kevin Garnett’s. KG has been quoted as saying he’d like Green to be more of an {expletive} on the court, rather than maintain his nice-guy demeanor. The Celtics have played with a brand of nastiness and determination since KG’s arrival that players like Green and Terry may not possess. Kendrick Perkins certainly had it. James “Parker” Posey exuded it. Even Glen “Big Baby” Davis, a soft-spoken, mild-mannered fellow himself, found a way to develop it. By the end of Davis’ Celtics-run, he was an expert at digging in defensively and making up for his lack of height with a unique ability to take charges.

What this team has that the Celtics have lacked over the last two seasons (in part because of Green’s absence last year) is a well-balanced offense with scoring options off the bench. Jason Terry’s ability to score off of the dribble stands out in comparison to “Benedict” Ray Allen’s deadly jump-shooting. Green will be at his best when the Celtics are able to run. Without consistent defensive stops, we should expect Green to have his ups and downs. When you consider the fact that he’s trying to prove himself and his contract, he didn’t play all of last season due to an aortic aneurism, and that he has to address the Boston media incessantly asking him about his aggressiveness and his early season struggles, it’s not surprising he’s missing those corner three pointers and lacking that extra edge needed to collect those tough rebounds. Sometimes it’s simply a question of getting an early lay-up or dunk to get a role-player going. Jason Terry has made a lucrative career out of heating up quickly off the bench. Many players can’t summon that instant-energy and focus it enough to play well off the bench. With Pierce entrenched as the team’s small forward for at least two more years, it may be a while before Green becomes a starter, but the contract shows that Ainge believes he offers more than most. Sometimes the road is where a young player, with the sudden expectations of a new contract and a rabid fan-base, gets himself “Off the Schneid”1 (We miss your color commentary, Bob Cousy).

On Saturday night in Milwaukee, Jeff Green’s performance in the 4th quarter officially got him off of that damn schneid and gave the Celtics the lift they needed. The Celtics finished the first half with a measly 39 points, trailing by 3. The prior night’s loss to Philadelphia seemed to have a hangover effect. The shooting woes (sports lexicon: isn’t this the only time you hear the word “woes?”) continued into the third quarter. Paul Pierce, the old standby, kept the C’s in the game. Milwaukee’s lead was 68-64 heading into the final frame. If you enjoy hyperbole, let’s call this Green’s “Schneid” game.

Maybe this is the turning point in what could have been a disappointing and endlessly-criticized season. Maybe Jeff Green’s career in Boston never gets in the elevator and takes off because of the expectations. Maybe KG’s persistent and fierce antagonizing leads him to a special bed at McLean’s, where he waits until Ainge mercifully trades him to a small-market team, Milwaukee, where he can be left alone to have himself a decent NBA career. Maybe. Or maybe Jeff Green just did what Jeff Green does, and it came at the right time.

Jeff Green is supposedly a nice guy, both on and off the court. Not everyone can play with KG’s schizophrenic intensity. Photo courtesy of Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Boston trailed 68-66 with just over eight minutes remaining. An aggressive Green drive to the hoop led to a foul by the indefatigable Larry Sanders (who later fouled out, a big loss for the Bucks defensively). After two free throws, Green found the basket again with a driving layup. After a Rondo jumper, the C’s went back to Green and his layup put them back in front, 74-72, forcing Milwaukee to call timeout. Though this stretch did not single-handedly win the game, it put the Celtics in position to win it. With Garnett resting on the bench, the Celtics have been outscored routinely in the season’s first few weeks. These types of positive stretches, for Green as well as the Celtics bench in general, will lead to wins on back-to-backs. After Pierce and Monta Ellis traded baskets in a brief shoot-out, the Celtics defense clamped down on the Bucks, the rested Garnett hit two jumpers, and Boston was on its way to an important road victory. Green added another hoop in the game’s last minute, on a Pierce dish. The 96-92 win on Saturday night brought the team’s record back to .500 (3-3).

1 To be “on the schneid” means to be on a losing streak, racking up a series of losing, and especially scoreless, games. “Schneid” is actually short for “schneider,” a term originally used in the card game of gin, meaning to prevent an opponent from scoring any points. “Schneider” entered the vocabulary of gin from German (probably via Yiddish), where it means “tailor.” Apparently the original sense was that if you were “schneidered” in gin you were “cut” (as if by a tailor) from contention in the game. “Schneider” first appeared in the literature of card-playing about 1886, but the shortened form “schneid” used in other sports is probably of fairly recent vintage.

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