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2018 NBA Playoffs

Six years after open-heart surgery saved his life, Jeff Green saves the Cavaliers’ season

LeBron James: ‘It’s the cherry on top because the game was taken away from him. His number was called, and he just answered the call.’

BOSTON — As Jeff Green walked to his dressing space in the jubilant Cleveland Cavaliers locker room after the team secured its fourth straight trip to the NBA finals, you couldn’t help but notice the scar that extends from his stomach to just before his neckline.

That scar is the result of a surgery from six years ago that could have cut short Green’s NBA career.

Green survived that lifesaving procedure. And, on Sunday night, Green helped save the Cavaliers’ NBA season.

LeBron James will long be lauded for his stat line — 35 points, 15 rebounds and 9 assists — in Cleveland’s 87-79 Game 7 win over the Boston Celtics to reach his eighth straight NBA Finals.

The oft-overlooked Tyronn Lue will, hopefully, get some credit for guiding these Cavaliers to their fourth straight appearance in the Finals.

But neither James nor Lue would be celebrating if Green hadn’t chipped in with 19 points, more than adequately filling in for Kevin Love, which helped him reach the NBA Finals for the first time in his career.

“I’m here,” Green said after the game. “I’ve worked my butt off each day since January 9, 2012.”

It was that day when Green was wheeled into an operating room in Cleveland, of all places, to begin open-heart surgery to replace an aortic root aneurysm. He was about to enter his first full season with the Boston Celtics when the heart defect was discovered during a routine physical.

He was assured that he’d be OK to resume his career, but can you blame a guy for having some doubts?

The doctors were right, and Green returned to the Celtics for the start of the 2012-13 season. He has scored more points than the 19 that he had for the Cavaliers on Sunday — but never on a bigger stage. He started for the first time in these 2018 playoffs and led a Cleveland supporting cast that many doubted would have an impact in Love’s absence.

“To make big plays like he made tonight — for him, personally — it’s the cherry on top because the game was taken away from him,” said James, who personally made calls to Green in the offseason to persuade him to sign with Cleveland.

“For him to be able to do what he did last game after Kev’s injury and then obviously start tonight, it’s big time. His number was called, and he just answered the call. It’s amazing.”

Green had eight rebounds to go along with his 19 points while playing 41 minutes, the most time he’s been on the court this postseason. He scored 14 points in Cleveland’s Game 6 win, suddenly getting increased minutes after Love wound up on the NBA’s concussion protocol after a first-half collision with Jayson Tatum.

With the Cavaliers falling behind by 10 points early and appearing on the verge of being blown out, it was Green who helped calm the team down in the second quarter when he scored six of his points to help Cleveland get within 44-39 at the half. In the fourth quarter, it was Green’s dagger 3-pointer from the right corner with 5:44 left that turned a one-point deficit into a 74-72 lead — a lead the Cavaliers held the rest of the game.

“Jeff Green was huge the last few games, just played tremendous,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said about Green after the game. “His transition baskets were big. I thought with [Kevin] Love out, they had a lot of switchable parts out there.”

Whether the Cavaliers are a better team without Love is debatable. What can’t be debated is that Green made the Cavaliers a more versatile team, proving an attack-the-basket ability from the 4 spot that Love can’t provide.

In making seven of his 14 shots, all seven of Green’s misses were from beyond the 3-point arc. He made every shot he took inside the arc, with all of those makes coming inside the lane.

An amazing performance from a guy who was the No. 5 pick of the 2007 NBA draft out of Georgetown and was, for the first 2½ years of his career, the No. 3 guy to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City before being traded to Boston in 2011.

Green’s been a journeyman since his surgery in 2012, playing with the Memphis Grizzlies, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Orlando Magic before signing a deal with Cleveland last summer.

“Each day I give it my all, whether good or bad. I live with the results. But I am enjoying it, every single moment of this.”

He’s been a quiet guy his entire career, but Green was unusually demonstrative during Game 7 as he urged his teammates to step up and offer support to the brilliance of James.

“I don’t talk,” Green said when asked about it. “When I talk, it’s meaningful. It’s useful. I don’t just talk to talk. To have the opportunity, playing a Game 7, to go to The Finals in The Garden. I spent four years here, and the opportunity was right there, and I wanted it bad.

“Today,” Green added, “was just one of those days where my voice needed to be heard.”

Green more than backed up his talk.

“I’m so happy for Jeff,” Lue said about the man who helped save his season. “I had him here when I coached in Boston, and just an all-around great guy, and I’m just happy for him and happy for the performance he had tonight.”

For Green, he stated the obvious reason why he came to Cleveland: to win a championship. The year-long journey also provided a valuable learning experience from one of the all-time great players.

“I’m seeing firsthand what it takes to be great, and [LeBron] leads by example,” Green said of James. “He brings it every night, and I mean, that’s what he’s been doing, and that’s what he’s been doing all year.

“I’m going to have his back,” Green added. “I’m going to be in a battle with him, and I enjoy the moment that this is, that we have. To be alongside him, I’m going to enjoy each day and continue to work to get to the ultimate goal.”

The goal is an NBA title, a journey that could be attainable or more challenging depending on whom the Cavaliers play. But there’s been no challenge greater than what Green’s already been through, a successful lifesaving procedure that saved both his career and his life.

“I’ve been truly blessed to be able to step foot on this court, to play this game,” Green said. “Each day I give it my all, whether good or bad. I live with the results. But I am enjoying it, every single moment of this. I don’t take nothing for granted. Nothing.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.