Can Jeff Green continue to be LeBron James’ perfect sidekick?

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 05: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates with Jeff Green #32 after hitting the game winning shot to beat the Toronto Raptors 105-103 in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 5, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 05: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates with Jeff Green #32 after hitting the game winning shot to beat the Toronto Raptors 105-103 in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 5, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

You probably laughed when reading the headline for this article. That’s okay, I kind of chuckled while writing it.

However, I also laughed at the thought of Jeff Green taking on big minutes when Kevin Love had to leave the court in Game 6 against the Celtics due to concussion protocol. If you had told me before Game 7 that Green would be the guy to step-up on the road in Game 7 to help LeBron James reach his eighth consecutive NBA Finals, I would’ve laughed then to.

So maybe, it’s time for all of us to stop laughing.

Green finally got the recognition he deserved this postseason for how important he’s been to the Cavs success, only after Cleveland put an end to the Celtics fairy tale run on their own floor. The former Georgetown forward finished the game with 19 points and eight rebounds, James was the only player who finished higher than him in both categories for the game.

Meanwhile, Celtics players Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier III who have received praise all post-season for their play, shied away from the moment like an eight-year old on his first day at a new school. In fact, the two of them combined didn’t have a better game than Green in Game 7. The two Celtics players finished with a total of 17 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 7-of-32 from the field and 3-of-22 from 3 (mainly thanks to Rozier going 0-12 from deep on the night, yikes.) which is considerably worse than Green’s 2-of-9 from deep on the night, which is a derisory percentage itself.

Big games from role players are what make and break seasons for NBA teams, big games on the road from role players are what make or break their careers. What’s strange though, is that Green had been important to the Cavs success before Games 6 and 7. His 19-point performance on Sunday night was his sixth double-digit game of the postseason. The Cavs are 5-1 in such games, with the only loss coming in the Game 6 blowout against Indiana in the first round.

Green’s influence on the Cavs success started to come in after that. He finished in double-digit scoring in the first three games against the Raptors as the Cavs went up 3-0 in that series, and went on to finish the job with a sweep after their strong start.

Then when the Cavs found themselves up the stream without a paddle for the second time this postseason, down 3-2 to the Celtics and with star forward Love down for the count with a concussion, Green stepped up again with two more double-digit scoring performances.

Green has played well for the Cavs by, especially over these last two games, understanding his limitations, and excelling in areas where he knows he’ll help the team win.

This starts on the defensive end, where Green’s size, length, and athleticism helps the Cavs have more versatility and lets them switch more screens without enticing dangerous mismatches.

In this clip we see Green go from being switched onto Celtics center Aron Baynes to helping teammate Kyle Korver who got beat by Jaylen Brown on a baseline drive. Green comes over to block the shot and then starts the ensuing fast break with an outlet pass to James.

The only player on the Cavs roster who you can trust to make this play is Tristan Thompson. James and Larry Nance Jr. are both capable, but on countless occasions this season they have spaced out help defense rotations (James appears to do it intentionally at times, Nance just has the occasional airhead moment. Not sure which is worse.).

This highlight started with Rozier and Al Horford putting Green and Thompson in the pick-and-roll. They switched, Green ended up with Horford and stuck with him on his drive just enough that Thompson was able to sink and help to force him to kick to Rozier. James rotated from Smart to Rozier, who kicked the ball to Smart, who was met by George Hill who rotated off of Jayson Tatum in the corner. Hill goes on to strip Smart, but it’s Green’s last action that allows that to happen. After tagging Horford on the pick-and-roll action he leaves him to Thompson who helped, and hustles over to Tatum before Smart can get him the ball.

This is perfect defense from the Cavs. The Celtics ran a pick-and-roll to get a mismatch which they did initially, but with proper rotations and communication the Cavs forced the matchup they want. The Celtics least skilled offensive player among the four who were involved ended up with the ball, with a solid defender on him. Ultimately, Hill stripped Smart and then ran an easy two-on-one fast break with James to get arguably his easiest two points of the night.

This doesn’t happen without Green, and definitely doesn’t happen if Love is out there. Love would’ve either gotten torched by Horford like he did in Game 1, or been to slow to Tatum who would’ve gotten an open 3 or easy baseline drive. I’m not suggesting Green is better than Love, obviously he’s not. But on the defensive end, he helps them out more against certain lineup configurations, many of which the Warriors use similarly.

Here we see more rim protection from Green. Rozier attacks the closeout from Thompson and gets by him, probably signalling to himself that he’s safe to attack the rim with Thompson in his rear view mirror. But he wasn’t. Green came off of Marcus Morris in the corner and met Rozier at the rim, forcing a miss (Rozier had bad luck when meeting Cavs players at the rim in this series).

Unfortunately, the Celtics recovered the missed dunk and swung the ball around quick enough to get Tatum an open corner 3 which he knocked down. But Green still prevented a dunk, and provided rim protection on a play that Thompson was to far behind on. He’ll need to do more of this against the Warriors, and can’t let his confidence diminish when their appreciably better players find ways to finish on him.

Green’s size — 6-foot-9 and 235-pounds — and his other physical attributes make him their best match-up for Durant. I’m sure some are thinking James should guard Durant, but I imagine your ears are numb to hearing about his fatigue so I won’t continue to discuss those points. But the King will be tasked with being the only source of creation against the Warriors in this series. We saw what that did to James Harden in Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals. Trying to have James guard Durant while carrying the load offensively would most likely lead to a similar outcome, so Green appears to be the number to call for this series.

In fact, the Cavs called his number when the two met at Oracle arena on Christmas day and Green did a decent job.

This clip starts with Green sticking with Durant through multiple screens, and then forcing the All-NBA forward into a contested mid-range pull-up. The Rockets’ P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza forced Durant to take many of these looks in the last round and some argued Durant’s poor — and occasionally selfish — shot selection was the Warriors undoing as they faced elimination for the first time since adding Durant to their roster. Green needs to do his best to bait Durant into the errors of his past, and make sure this old dog doesn’t learn new tricks.

Here we see Green guarding Durant in isolation on the top of the key and on the right wing. In the first clip he does an excellent job getting him to shoot an off-the-dribble pull-up 3 which he contests beautifully. He does it again in the second clip, but he is aided by the game clock winding down.

Green is clearly capable of giving Durant trouble in bursts, but can he do it for a whole series? Durant is arguably the greatest scorer to ever play the game. Many — teams and individuals — are able to hang with all time greats for possessions, quarters, halves, and sometimes even a few games. But eventually their talent prevails, and they wear down their inferior opponents as they finally come out on top.

If Green can do the impossible and hang with Durant for the series, then maybe he opens the window for James to do enough to lead them to victory.

Green can help out the Cavs on the other end as well, which he showed by scoring 16.5 points in Games 6 and 7 against the Celtics. However, if he Cavs want him to get anywhere near that number they’re going to need to continue to get him the ball in positions where he can succeed. The options are limited, but certainly doable.

The first place where Green can score is in transition, something Celtics coach Brad Stevens commented on at the end of the series. “His [Green] transition baskets were big. I thought with [Kevin] Love out, they had a lot of switchable parts out there.” Notice how he commented on his versatility as well.

Stevens is right though. When the Cavs get running, Green can pose a threat.

Here’s one example from Game 7 where Green recognizes the slower Baynes ended up with him in transition and the rest of the Celtics aren’t back to protect the rim. Green has the space to get a running start so he does and then draws a foul and finishes against Baynes. While the Warriors don’t regularly play anyone as slow footed as Baynes, Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell showed us in the Rockets series that they can be exploited and will make mistakes. If Green gets the opportunity to single them out during fast break opportunities, he has to take advantage.

In this video we see Green score two more nifty transition buckets. In the first clip, he attacks Brown, who although he matches up well athletically Green gets an advantage because he has a running start. Green gets to the rim and forces a goal tend from Baynes as he displays his ability to attack in transition yet again.

In the second clip Green goes at Tatum and with an impressive up and under he finishes at the rim again. He also beat Horford down the floor, meaning the Celtics didn’t have anyone back for rim protection.

The Warriors have played at a faster pace than the Celtics this post-season, 99.88 vs. 95.26, which means these opportunities will come up more often. I’m sure the Cavs don’t want to get into a transition shootout with the Warriors, it’s one they’ll undoubtedly lose by 20, but they need to pick their spots and give Green opportunities to get them buckets in these situations. James did this perfectly against the Celtics, looking like he was hunting for Green in transition at the right time, and he’ll need to continue that trend in the Finals.

Another position the Cavs often put Green in was post-ups — particularly, but not exclusively, against undersized guards.

Green went up against Rozier in the post in this clip. Morris is forced to come over in help as Green approaches the area where he can just turn and see over Rozier to shoot. Green sees the double coming and kicks to James who knocks down the open 3.

Here, Green posts up Brown. Not the same size advantage he has against Rozier but still enough that he’s just able to shoot over him for the easy two.

The Warriors don’t have as many players as the Celtics that the Cavs can target for Green post-up’s. But one of them is Steph Curry, and the more they make him work and beat him up when they have the ball, the more drained he’ll be when he ends up with the ball. It would behoove Ty Lue and the Cavs to try and isolate some Green vs. Curry post-up’s in this series.

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It’s obvious that asking Green to step up is grasping at straws, but it seemed that way when the moment arrived against the Celtics too. Green proved us wrong then, and even hit some big open three-pointers to cap it all off (which is something we didn’t talk about, but he’ll need to do it against the Warriors as well) as he was the X-factor that put the Cavs over their final barrier and into the Finals where they’ll meet the Warriors for the fourth straight time.

Cleveland’s odds at evening up the record at two apiece are slim at best. But if they’re going to do it they’ll need to put James limited help in the best positions possible to help him. We saw the rewards it could yield when they did it against Boston, hopefully, for the Cavs sake and the viewers sake they do it again. Maybe, that will make this series watchable.