Brooklyn Nets: After Jeff Green’s Injury, How Do the Nets Move Forward?

This is not good. I guess it could be worse, but this is really not good. It took all year for the Brooklyn Nets—sans Spencer Dinwiddie, whose fate we’ve accepted by now—to get healthy. And they did, just in time for the playoffs! And it took all of two games for that bliss to dissipate.

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This time, it’s not an injury to a member of the Big 3, but the good news ends there. Jeff Green has been diagnosed with a strained plantar fascia in his left foot, and is not to be re-evaluated until Sunday, June 6. At the minimum, it’s nine more days until Brooklyn’s fifth (sixth? fourth?) most important player can think about making a return. And, just to get the worst-case scenario out of the way, it’s an injury that could play a role in the demise of the 2021 Nets.

Nets fans are no stranger to the dangers of plantar fasciitis. After dealing with a “sore left heel” to end the 2013 season, Joe Johnson suffered a torn plantar fascia in Brooklyn’s first-round series against the Chicago Bulls. Johnson played through the injury, and delivered likely the worst stretch of his Nets career. The injury, a pain tolerance sort of ordeal, clearly sapped explosiveness and comfort from his game. He shot quite poorly and could not drive to the rim. His free throw rate plummeted, as he took just over one a game while playing 39 minutes a night. It was as painful to watch as it was for Johnson to play (I’m sure of it).

But we’re not here to relive “Joe Jesus.” We’re here to talk about the body blow that is Jeff Green’s absence from the lineup. And it really is a gut punch. Facing the Boston Celtics, it shouldn’t matter in terms of deciding the series’ eventual outcome. When Evan Fournier and Tristan Thompson square up to check Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, Green is the furthest thing from their minds. But that doesn’t discount Green’s ability. That ability was a vital part of the Nets’ regular-season success, and it was available to them for 68 out of 72 games. Brooklyn dealt with a lot (a lot) this year, but Green’s availability never presented an issue. He was there, ready to hit corner threes and dunk on unfortunately late help defenders, night in and night out.

Green’s Scoring Prowess

The threes and dunks are the eye candy of Green’s game, but that’s also a good place to start when talking about his skillset. Calling him a small-ball five doesn’t do his game justice. After all, is that not what we also call Blake Griffin? Bruce Brown, at times? But the threes and dunks describe one of Green’s most important traits: being a dynamic play-finisher. He’s the type of scorer that no other rotational big on the Nets can emulate.

Most offensive possessions feature Green standing around the perimeter, waiting for a catch-and-shoot opportunity that may or may not come. And I’ll get to his value as a standstill shooter in a second. But where Green really excels is as a ball-screener. We know what he can do as a roll-man—his collection of posters this year is evidence enough. Green is successfully converting 69 percent of his shots at the rim, with some coming around outstretched defenders, but many coming over and through them. He and James Harden have mastered the two-man dance of the pick-and-roll game. And while he takes and makes plenty of corner threes, Green is shooting a healthy 39 percent on attempts from above the break, meaning the pick and pop is another option to attack defenses with.

Harden and the Nets are ruthless switch-hunters, handpicking whatever matchup they want offensively. And they often use Green as a tool to get there. At some point, defenses concede a switch rather than risk an open Green dunk or three. Brooklyn has no shortage of routes to get where they want to go. Take this sequence, from a February matchup with the Phoenix Suns:

The action is inverted, with Green handling and Harden screening. First, Green uses the screen, and gets to ball to Harden, who now has DeAndre Ayton to toy with. The next time down the court, the Suns get greedy trying to deny Harden the mismatch of his choice, so Green speeds by Ayton, unprepared to sit in a stance 25 feet from the basket, for a layup. As an offensive jack of all trades, you never know when one of Green’s skills is going to come in handy. Most often though, it’s the outside shooting that punishes defenses the most. It’s just hard to run most big men opposite Green, who has become a trusted 40-percenter from range.

Above, in Game Two against Boston, Robert Williams gets caught out of position over-helping in the paint, which leads to a wide-open Green corner three. He doesn’t hit, but it illuminates a challenge for Williams: continue to accumulate blocks by hanging around the paint and give up open looks to a reliable shooter, or sacrifice the essence of his defensive game. Tough choice.

Where the Nets Will Miss Green

Ultimately, the rest of the Nets can’t scrape together what Green offers. Don’t get me wrong, Griffin is a fine card to have in the deck. He is a better facilitator, particularly from the top of the key, than Green. Put the ball in his hands, and allow the 7/11 tandem to work off-ball, or run handoffs with Joe Harris. Griffin is a far less explosive finisher off the roll, but a petter passer in four-on-three situations. His presence makes it much harder to, say, trap Durant 25 feet from the basket. But there’s a reason head coach Steve Nash has so often turned to Green to close games this season.

The ball will not, and should not spend a lot of time in Griffin’s hands at the end of games. The Big 3 will work in isolation situations and make many plays. It behooves Brooklyn to have Green, the better shooter, on the floor. In the regular season, we saw the Milwaukee Bucks close driving lanes by just about disregarding Griffin on the perimeter, sticking a wrench in the Nets’ offense. While Griffin’s raw numbers as a three-point shooter are nothing to scoff at, he is not the shooter Green is. It’s quite uneasy imagining a scenario where Griffin is taking the biggest shots of the game while the Big 3 is on the court. In a potential second round, it may take more guts than Milwaukee has to employ the same strategy against Green.

I haven’t even mentioned defense, an area where Green shined and Griffin… did not in the first two games of the Boston series. Griffin has shown defensive value throughout the regular season for Brooklyn, but much of it came from making early rotations, taking charges, and superior communication skills. Of course those things matter in the playoffs. But as the postseason game slows in pace, and often evolves into one-on-one mismatch hunting, Green is better equipped to handle that. The Celtics’ only reliable source of offense through two games has been attacking Blake Griffin off of switched pick-and-rolls, something they have not had success doing against Green.

Looking Ahead

Brooklyn fans are not worried about the Celtics, with or without Uncle Jeff. This series should wrap fairly soon. But so should Milwaukee’s first-round series, thus setting up a monumental second-round series set to begin somewhere in the vicinity of Green’s re-evaluation date.

It’s silly to say things like “the Nets should be able to beat Milwaukee anyway” without Green. Yes, his potential absence would not make the sting of a potential series loss any easier to stomach. Barring injury circumstances that go far beyond Green’s left foot, a second-round exit would be a brutal close to the first season of these Nets.

But his presence is unquestionably important. Brooklyn will likely be starting their most important games of the year without a very important piece of the pie. Not good. And even if or when he returns, this sort of injury indicates he won’t be operating at 100 percent. The left foot being the source of pain is particularly worrisome, as it is Green’s primary takeoff leg in traffic. So yes, for the first time in a couple weeks, there are reasons to worry in Nets World. I’ll miss that period of relaxation.

This team has overcome strife all season. But Green has been so valuable to the Nets—who knows how much of that strife they’d have overcome without him? His injury may be just another in a long line of nagging storylines for Brooklyn this season, all of which have so far failed to derail a storybook season. Or, eventually, we could be looking back at a series loss to Milwaukee, decrying this as the first turning point.

All there is to do now is sit back and feel anxious about injury news once again. Someone get that man an IcyHot.