BOSTON -- His teammates call him Iron Man, and after a pair of Garden-rumbling second-quarter dunks, Boston Celtics forward Jeff Green did his signature rip-open-the-chest celebration as the Phoenix Suns scrambled for a timeout.
One year ago, Green didn't feel nearly as invincible as he lay in a hospital bed at the Cleveland Clinic, having just undergone major heart surgery to repair the aortic aneurysm that ended his 2011-12 season before it even began.
Green didn't know exactly what was in store. Celtics coach Doc Rivers worried Green's basketball career was over. But 365 days later, the typically emotionless Green seemed to be fighting back emotions after he scored a team-high 14 points as part of an 87-79 triumph over the Suns at TD Garden.
"I don't cry, but it was [emotional]," said Green, seemingly struggling to prevent the tears that would have called his bluff. "A year ago I had heart surgery. I think about lying in bed, when I woke up from it, to where I'm at now. It's a big deal to me. I'm just glad to be here, glad to be alive, glad to be playing basketball."
After working hard in rehabilitation to get himself back on the court, Green inked a four-year, $36 million contract this offseason to return to Boston. That deal has been much scrutinized given Green's inconsistent play, but Rivers -- his own patience tested at times -- has often advised tolerance given what Green has endured.
As the Celtics begin to play some of their most inspired ball of the season, Green appears to be doing the same. Coming off a 16-point, six-rebound effort in 27 quality minutes against the New York Knicks on Monday, Green highlighted Boston's stellar second-unit play on Wednesday with 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting with three rebounds, a block and a steal in 25:30.
The two second-quarter dunks highlighted his night. A little dribble move helped him split Michael Beasley and Sebastian Telfair before throwing down an emphatic right-handed jam over old friend Jermaine O'Neal (one that'll find itself on a "SportsCenter" loop through the night).
At the other end, Kevin Garnett intercepted a pass and started a two-on-one fast break. When Telfair stepped up to stop the ball, Avery Bradley lobbed it up for Green, who delivered a rim-rocking two-handed slam. Green added two more buckets as part of a 14-2 run that had Boston out front by 12 late in the first half.
"It's a good night," Rivers said. "[Green] got some dunks and looked good. And who would've thought it a year ago? It's really a testament to Jeff, in general. The fact that he worked himself into the condition that he did. There had to be some kind of fear, somewhere, because to work yourself into condition you have to use that muscle. So it's just really cool that he's playing, and he's playing well for us."
Rivers admitted he feared for the now 26-year-old's career upon the initial diagnosis, particularly after Green's one-year, $9 million contract was voided due to the detection.
"I was more concerned about Jeff's health; I wasn't thinking about basketball at all, I can tell you that," Rivers said. "At that time, I honestly didn't think he'd ever play. So the basketball part wasn't even a concern.
"The two things that bugged me the most, obviously, his condition was No. 1, and then the contract that was voided, because it had to be, legally. And I was thinking, 'Man, this kid's worked his whole life to make a living,' and now he's signing the biggest deal of his life to that point and it's gone. You know? And so now he's back playing, doing well in all those areas, and I'm very happy for him. He deserves it."
The Celtics still want to see Green develop the consistency expected from a $9 million-per-year player, but they have to like the strides he has made recently, including on the defensive end.
Asked about the significance of producing a solid evening on the first anniversary of his surgery, Green started to answer -- "It felt good, " -- but then paused a moment as if collecting himself.
"I can't put it in words how I feel," he added. "It's a wonderful day. I had a good game. I'm just glad to be here, man. I reflected a lot about what I've been through; it's a blessing to be here. I'm just happy."
Outside the Celtics' locker room, Green was all smiles as he shared a moment with his agent, David Falk, who had to be the toast of the town after Green and fellow client Jared Sullinger were the stars of Wednesday's win. Back inside the locker room, Green marveled at his own journey to this point.
"The first time I stood up from surgery, the first time I walked, it was painful, but it was me taking steps to getting better, the start of my progress to being back on the court," Green said, reflecting on milestone moments in his recovery. "Those are memories that I'll never forget.
"That first step, it was a wonderful journey for myself and an unbelievable process that I went through. I can sit here and tell you all about it "
His voice trailed off again as if pondering the emotion of the past year. He was asked if that time in a hospital bed motivated him.
"The way I felt when I woke up, I never want to feel that again," Green said. "The feeling of taking 10 steps and being tired. I never want to feel that again."
There's still steps to take in his game, but the one-year anniversary of his surgery afforded Green the opportunity to realize the monster leaps he has already made -- and we're not just talking about those highlight-worthy slams.