Playoffs 2017: East First Round -- Celtics (1) vs. Bulls (8)

Game 5 presents opportunity to seize series momentum for Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls

Small forward Gerald Green emerges from Celtics' bench as key player

Ian Thomsen

BOSTON — Is the truth ready to emerge?

The No. 1-seeded Boston Celtics lost the first two games at home while mourning the death of Isaiah Thomas’ sister. The No. 8-seeded Chicago Bulls lost the next two at home in the absence of point guard Rajon Rondo.

With Game 5 here Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT) one of these teams is going to seize firm hold of an opening-round series that so far has been at the mercy of larger events. The Celtics, owners of the homecourt for two of the remaining three games, believe they’ve settled on a winning formula around 6-foot-7 small forward Gerald Green, who was elevated to the starting lineup last weekend in Chicago after spending most of the season at the end of the bench.

“That’s one of the challenges with our team — there was a lot of similar ability to impact the game, specifically off the bench,” said coach Brad Stevens, whose 15-man roster has been brimming all season with young players of potential. “There were times when Gerald Green didn’t play much all year. And there were times when we really leaned on him to help us win.”

Green, 31, is the oldest Celtic, and in many ways their greatest optimist. There were all sorts of technical reasons for starting him in Games 3 and 4 — he would enable Al Horford to shift to center, he would provide length and shooting, and he would force the Bulls to go small, which would play to Boston’s perimeter strength.

Equal to all of those tactical gains was Green’s impact on his team’s mood. He had been DNP for 36 games this season — including the Celtics’ miserable Game 2 loss here — and yet he remained upbeat and ready to perform. The Celtics needed someone to attack fearlessly, to view himself as equal to the task, and Green’s self-belief was unassailable. After joining Boston straight out of Houston’s Gulf Shores Academy as the No. 18 pick in the 2005 Draft, Green had played for eight teams in the NBA, three in the NBA Development League, two in Russia and one in China.

He had remained confident after being traded or renounced by so many employers. So the Celtics knew that he was not going to be intimidated by this unexpected opportunity to start against the Bulls.

“Same with Terry,” said Stevens of second-year guard Terry Rozier. “Same with Jaylen (Brown, the Celtics’ rookie small forward) and on down the line. You trust all those guys to come in and play well when given the opportunity.”

Green scored eight points in Game 3 as the Celtics began to exploit the disappearance of Rondo, who had been sidelined by a fractured right thumb. Green added 16 points in the first half of Game 4 (finishing with 18 overall) as Rozier complemented his impact with further energy and pace off the bench.

The series is trending positively for Boston. After averaging 14 points per game during the regular season, Horford has scored 52 across three of the four games of this series (setting aside his and his team’s woeful production in Game 2).

Along the way, Thomas has begun the long path to recovery. He overcame tears to score 33 points in the Game 1 loss, and then he appeared to be gutted in Game 2. By Game 3 he was creating more opportunities for his teammates than for himself (16 points and nine assists). In spite of going 1-for-9 from the arc in Game 4, Thomas appeared to be recovering his old identity with 33 points and seven assists, to the point that Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was no longer feeling sympathy for him — and instead was accusing Thomas of carrying the ball on the dribble, which is a point of view that predates long shorts, jumbotrons and the internet.

“He is figuring it out,” said Horford of Thomas’s response to the defensive attention he has earned in the playoffs. “He is still going to be able to score the ball, it’s just that it’s not going to be the one-on-one matchup anymore. He’s going to have two or three guys (shading him defensively) and he’s going to have to be a little more patient sometimes getting rid of the ball – and he will get it back.

“Teams really want to double him and make it tough. But the way that we move the ball as a group, he is still going to get his opportunities. He is still aggressive and he can still beat the double-team at times — that’s pretty impressive to me. So he just needs to be mindful of when there is a lot of pressure to kick it out, and he’s been doing that in these last few games.”

The other lurking influence continues to be Rondo, who had been renewing his old big-game reputation in the Bulls’ wins here. In his absence the Bulls figure to be leaning on backup point guard Isaiah Canaan, who provided 13 points in 34 surprising minutes on Sunday. Rondo said he would not be ready for Game 5 but he has not ruled himself out for a return in Game 6 – yet another variable in a series defined by them.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here or follow him on Twitter.

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