Bradley's D Brings Back Celtics Swagger

WALTHAM, Mass. – If you set aside the ref bumping, suspensions, trash talk and bus loitering that have gotten headlines over the last few days, the real storyline for the Boston Celtics, suddenly winners of their last three games, is pretty encouraging.

Since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen (remember him?) came to Boston in the summer of 2007 and brought with them a culture shift and legit championship aspirations, the Celtics have carried themselves with an unwavering swagger that often gave them a psychological edge before the ball even tipped off. But that comportment has been mysteriously lacking this season, and whether the departure of Allen and the injection of untested new blood was either partly or wholly responsible wasn’t quite clear.

Avery Bradley

Avery Bradley's hard-nosed defense gave the Knicks guards fits on Monday night.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

What was obvious, though, was that the Celtics couldn’t play basketball at a high level on a consistent basis over 48 minutes every night. Having won more than two consecutive games just once all season -- so long ago that both Doc Rivers and Rajon Rondo already forgot about it -- the C’s were underperforming and provoking questions about their once unquestioned heart and championship DNA.

The Celtics closed out 2012 with three consecutive uninspiring blowout losses, with the only glimmer of hope being that Avery Bradley was set to return to action to start the New Year. Rivers, who insisted his team was trending in the right direction despite the mounting L’s in the standings, cautioned that Bradley was “not Bill Russell,” and that he wouldn’t be able to change the team’s fortunes overnight.

Well, after four games, perhaps Doc Rivers may have slightly misdiagnosed the problem. Either that, or the Celtics had a fever, and the only prescription was more Avery Bradley. Much like Garnett, Bradley’s energy is undeniable, and apparently, highly contagious as well.

“I’m just a piece to this puzzle,” Bradley said calmly and quietly while awaiting the start of Tuesday’s practice in Waltham. “I’m somebody who’s going to bring energy and obviously everybody’s feeding off my energy.”

For as understated as he is off the court, when he steps between the lines, Bradley is pure bulldog. He invades opponents’ space, and plays a highly physical brand of defense rarely seen at any level of basketball, let alone the NBA.

Thanks in part to Bradley’s cheap-suit defense on the Knicks, Boston beat New York 102-96 on Monday despite playing without the services of Rajon Rondo. The Celtics’ point guard was suspended by the NBA earlier in the afternoon for making contact with an official on Saturday night in Atlanta. Shorthanded, the C’s needed someone else to step up, and Rivers called Bradley’s defense “game-changing.”

“Avery and Courtney (Lee) were picking up full-court on both of their guards,” Rivers said. “You don’t see that too often. It had an impact. Instead of the Knicks running up and down the floor, we were running and they were playing in half court because of our pressure.”

The impact extends well beyond just the opposing team’s point guard or ball-handler, as Bradley’s hectoring prevents teams from establishing their offense, giving the Celtics’ defense more time to lock in.

“I think it helps everybody. Our pick and roll defense is better, because we’re into the ball. It’s what we’ve said all year, we’re just starting to do it,” Rivers said. “The more our guards are in font of the ball, the less our bigs have to help, and the more they’re on the glass, the more we rebound, the more we can run.”

Monday’s game, much like Friday’s battle with the Pacers at TD Garden, was a chippy affair, and Garnett was once again at the middle of it all, this time doing his best to irritate New York’s MVP candidate Carmelo Anthony. While technical fouls, trash talk and a little extra physicality never puts points on the board, it does point to some renewed swagger, and that’s not a bad thing for this team.

“The best thing is that we got the win,” Rondo said of missing the Knicks game due to his suspension. “It’s our first time we’ve gotten three wins in a row (sic) so we’ve got to build on that.”

With a five-game home-stand on tap starting on Wednesday at TD Garden against the 12-23 Phoenix Suns, the time to build on it is at hand.