Jeff Green: No More Mister Nice Guy

BOSTON - Jeff Green is a nice guy. It’s just who he is. But between the lines on the NBA hardwood, nice guys finish last. They certainly don’t finish at the rim with loud dunks in traffic.

Something had to give, and one dunk may have changed everything.

On a Midwest road trip just a few days ago, Kevin Garnett told Green to be more of a, well, seeing as this is a family website, we’ll just say that Garnett told him to be a mean guy.

A bad dude. A jerk. Unfriendly. Rude.

Jeff Green

Jeff Green throws down an emphatic dunk over former Celtic Al Jefferson in Wednesday's win over the Jazz.
Steve Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images

“Jeff’s a really, really nice guy,” Garnett said. “Some nights, you just gotta be an (expletive).”

Just a few games later, it appeared that Green was getting the message. On off days, he can be the Jeff Green who hangs out with children from the American Heart Association for a few hours, poses for photos with each of them, and then autographs the pictures with personalized notes thanking them for being an inspiration to him. Or the guy who unexpectedly shows up at a Celtics staffer’s going away party after a home game, recognizing the hard work that goes on behind the scenes in the organization. Just after the trade from Oklahoma City, a Thunder sideline reporter raved to a colleague in the Celtics front office about Green’s personality and how much of an asset he’d be to the team off the court and in the community.

There’s no end to the “good guy” anecdotes about Green. But now, once he steps onto the court on game night, there’s apparently no more Mister Nice Guy. The new Jeff Green is playing with an edge, and one play on Wednesday night may have completed his transformation. The Jeff Green who finished a swooping baseline drive with an in-your-face, one-handed power slam over a ducking-for-cover Al Jefferson suddenly had no problem staring down an opponent and getting his teammates fired up.

The impressive dunk had Celtics fans on their feet, Garnett back in his ear and confidence brimming in his game. Watching the replay, you don’t need a lip reader to tell that KG hollered at Green, minus a few colorful metaphors, “that’s what I’m talking about,” while congratulating him after the whistle.

“I can’t tell you what he said…use your imagination,” Green said after the 98-93 win over the Utah Jazz at TD Garden. “Think Kevin Garnett. It was explicit. But he said it to me the other day, what I need to be. That’s basically what he said.”

Green also picked up a technical foul for his reaction (Green copped to ‘earning’ the tech for his post-dunk conduct before joking that Courtney Lee had volunteered to pay the associated NBA fine), and while no one’s asking him to turn into Rasheed Wallace, a little display of emotion, anger and a touch of a mean streak is exactly what Garnett and his teammates are seeking.

“That ain’t his personality,” teammate Chris Wilcox said of the dunk and stare down. “But we just need him to be that on the court. When he gets off the court, he can go back to being Jeff. We need the animal, we need the ‘dawg’ in him.”

Wilcox, who knows all too well about Green’s scenario given that he also underwent a similar heart procedure last year, has known Green since their days together in Seattle while Green was a rookie. The two have long been bonded, and Wilcox knows what Green is capable of when properly motivated.

“As teammates, we’ve got to motivate him, we’ve got to talk to him to get him going. A dunk like that, that’s the ‘dawg’ in him. That’s what we’re trying to get out of him,” Wilcox said. “He’s showing streaks of it.”

The dunk itself, coming at the 7:13 mark of the fourth quarter of a tight game, came at a critical juncture for the Celtics, and clearly gave his teammates, not to mention the TD Garden crowd, a big lift. After the game, the slam was the talk of the locker room among players and reporters alike, with some scribes wondering if it was the best in-game dunk by a Celtic in the history of the building.

“It felt good. I was just trying to make a play at the rim,” Green said, surrounded by microphones and notebooks in the Celtics locker room. “I just got higher than Al. It was two points and it kept us a good lead, so it was a good play, hopefully it will get on SportsCenter, we’ll see.”

Green’s dunk made all the highlight shows, and was captured in a Celtics Instagram photo that was wildly popular within minutes, quickly garnering more than 15,000 likes by Thursday morning. When shown the photo Wednesday night, Green glanced at the picture on a reporter’s iPhone and then asked, “Are my eyes open?”

Green was referring to the likeness captured in the picture, but if he was being self-referential in terms of his metaphorical “eyes being open,” we’ll indulge that scenario as well. Either way, the answer is yes. Despite his well-documented heart procedure to repair an aortic root aneurysm that could have easily taken his career away, Green is an incredibly gifted world-class athlete whose play looks so smooth at times that it can appear that he’s not even trying. But his eyes and ears are open. He’s read the critiques and heard the complaints about not being aggressive enough. If anything, he’s his own harshest critic. But he knows what he has to do.

“It’s just something that I need to do myself, I don’t think anyone needs to tell me to do that. Being aggressive is something that I see I need to do,” Green said.

Asked again about the dunk itself, Green was more introspective.

“I have been playing a little lackadaisical, as far as the effort, before the prior couple games or so,” Green said. “(The dunk) kind of boosts your confidence a little bit.”

Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who’s been quick to explain that Green’s return to NBA basketball is an incredible feat, is clearly pulling for the kid but has tempered his expectations with patience.

“I don’t think people give enough thought to how much he had to do to get back on the floor. His summer was harder than anybody else’s summer,” Rivers said before the game against the Jazz. “He had to work all summer long to get back to being a basketball player. He hasn’t stopped working for a long time. I’m sure there’s some fatigue, mentally and physically.”

If Green’s tired of anything, you might expect it to be the questions about his offseason surgery and return to the court. He’s already done multiple sit-down interviews about the procedure itself and has already agreed to do a few more. Green says he’s proud of the scar that bisects his chest, shows it off whenever he can, and notes that it reminds him of what he’s overcome.

“It’s a part of me now,” Green told the Boston Globe. “It is a reminder that I’ve battled something that a lot of people doubted I was going to come back from.”

What has likely grown tiresome, though, are questions about his role, and where he fits in with the Celtics as his early season production was largely inconsistent. Before the game against Utah, Green half-heartedly answered a reporter’s questions while checking text messages, and it seemed like he was somewhat annoyed with the inquiries.

Even after the game, knowing that reporters wanted to throw him softballs about the big dunk and his 16-points-in-27-minutes performance, Green told them he only had two minutes for an interview. His locker room demeanor during pregame and postgame seemed slightly out of character, but hey, being an (expletive) between the lines might take some occasional practice outside the lines.

Kidding aside, it’s clear that Green is changing. He’s already got a scar on his chest. A little chip on his shoulder might be not be a bad thing either.