Bradley Makes Impact with Epic Defense
BOSTON - With his previous opportunities few and far between, to outsiders, it was starting to look like Avery Bradley wasn't going to survive in the NBA.
Suddenly, on Monday night, he looked like the most disruptive defensive force in the league on a historic evening for the Boston Celtics.
Bradley sparkplugged an overbearing defense that held the Magic to a Celtics franchise record low of just 56 points, as well as just 16 field goals, and 25 percent shooting from the field. The outcome was an impressive 87-56 win at TD Garden; the run-away victory improved the Celtics' record to 7-9 and it may very well prove to be a turning point in this young, strange and truncated NBA season.
Boston was severely undermanned, with Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Keyon Dooling, Chris Wilcox and Mickael Pietrus all sidelined with injuries. On paper, this game looked like a blowout waiting to happen. Making just the third start of his career, Bradley had played few meaningful NBA minutes and has been largely relegated to garbage time. But his incredible defensive performance in just under 30 minutes of playing time trashed Orlando's game plan and raised many eyebrows for this first time.
"His defense set the whole tone for the entire thing. He took us out; we had a hard time getting the ball down and getting into offense," an exasperated Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy said after the game.
Jameer Nelson, a 2009 All-Star, was visibly frustrated as Bradley swarmed him with full-court defense that you rarely see in regular season games. Nelson committed five turnovers, but even when he managed to hold onto the rock, Bradley's ballhawking had him struggling to set the table for Orlando's shoot-3s-first, ask-questions-later offense.
"I just came out tonight and I wanted to get everybody else's energy up and I felt like I did playing defense like that," an exhausted Bradley said in the locker room after the win. "Paul [Pierce] came up and told me, ‘When you play defense like that it makes us play defense even harder.' That's all I try to do, I try to help in anyway I can."
Around Waltham, Bradley's earned a reputation as an exceptional defensive player. On media day, veteran guard Keyon Dooling called himself the "third-best point guard" on the team, citing the defensive battles that he was watching Rondo and Bradley stage in training camp. Over the past two years, Doc Rivers has regularly insisted that Bradley was a great defensive player, and after tonight's win, two teammates called Bradley the "best on-the-ball defender" in the NBA.
Outside the inner sanctum, up to this point there was little evidence to suggest Bradley was ready to put it together in an actual NBA game. Even Rivers, who often favors experience and execution over potential and production, had been hinting recently that rookie E'Twaun Moore was further along than Bradley.
Obviously, without Rondo's injury, Bradley's big night may never have been realized. But something clicked for Bradley Monday night, and what's perhaps more impressive, it rubbed off on his teammates. After watching Bradley hector Nelson, the Celtics played a tougher, more physical brand of basketball. They even showed some of their long-lost swagger, conspicuous by its absence to date.
"He was very infectious on the rest of us with his ball pressure all night long," Pierce said of the young point guard. "He's playing so hard; he's harassing the point guards so the other guys are trying to deny [the ball]. When they catch it and once they get into their offense, there's only like 10-11 seconds on the shot clock and as everybody knows around the NBA, it's tough to run your offense with 10-11 seconds on the shot clock."
Rivers acknowledged that he's taken most of the play-calling and offense-running burden off Bradley. He's asked the youngster to concentrate on the defensive end. The Celtics are running the offense through Pierce instead of calling out plays to Bradley in the backcourt, as Rivers did often during the first half of Boston's loss to the Phoenix Suns on Friday night. With his focus narrowed, Bradley posted a forgettable box score line, but he made a memorable, game-changing impact on the defensive end.
With Bradley on the floor and in their face, the Magic struggled getting the ball over half court, let alone down into the post to Dwight Howard. The Magic's big man started the game by hitting four of his first five field goal attempts, looking poised to dominate, but when Bradley settled in and turned up the heat on Nelson, it left little time for Howard (who still mustered 18 points and 14 rebounds) to operate. The man who fancies himself as Superman missed his next 11 shots, thanks in large part to some inspired defense from Kevin Garnett and the Orlando offense that Bradley discombobulated.
"Whatever chance or opportunity you get, you have to go out there and make the most of it," Bradley said. "Me or E'Twaun, when we get out there we have to do whatever we need to do for our team so we can get the win and that's what I felt like I did tonight."
What he does for an encore Thursday night may be even more compelling. Bradley certainly doesn't want to be a one-hit wonder, but he may be once again relegated to the back up role if Rondo is ready to return to the lineup from a sprained right wrist. Should Dooling (knee) return as well, Rivers will presumably have some decisions to make about his rotation.
Either way, for at least one night, the Avery Bradley we've been hearing about finally made his case.