It's All About Avery Bradley Now

The emergence of Avery Bradley has been one of the best — if not the best — story of the Celtics’ season so far this year. But last night, in the Celtics’ 83-74 Game 1 loss to Atlanta, it looked like he had the playoff jitters. He started off cold on his way to 4-12 shooting (0-2 from three) and even struggled at the free-throw line, where he was 2-4. After one of those foul shot misses in the second quarter, Kevin Garnett walked up to the free-throw line to give Bradley a pep talk. KG patted him on the chest, as if to say, calm down, it’ll be OK. When Kevin Garnett is trying to calm you down, you know you’re in trouble.

Doc Rivers seemed not to be thrilled with Bradley’s play, either: The Celtics guard registered just 28 minutes (since March 25, when Bradley started getting consistent big minutes for the Celtics, he’d been averaging 34.5 minutes per game), and sat out nearly the entire fourth quarter, only checking back in at the 3:04 mark for Mickael Pietrus. Stifling defense is usually Bradley’s calling card, but he didn’t make much happen last night, and got himself in trouble with a couple of overplays. When he was on the court, the Hawks outscored the Celtics by 13 points, tying Bradley with Paul Pierce (who had a truly dreadful game) for the worst plus/minus on the team.

The point of this isn’t to pick on Bradley — he was far from the only reason the Celtics lost last night. The point is that, suddenly, with Rajon Rondo looking like he may very well be suspended for Game 2, Avery Bradley is incredibly important.

This lockout shortened season has been so wacky and wild that, really, it seems appropriate that a healthy chunk of the Celtics’ fate rests in the hands of a guy who had trouble getting off the bench at the beginning of the year. But once he did, wow. During that end of year hot streak, Bradley gave the C’s 15 points per game and ratcheted up their defense so much that ESPN’s stat guru John Hollinger declared the Celtics D, “historic,” and put Bradley on his All-Defense first team. On April 10, Hollinger wrote:

Defensively, however, Bradley is a world-class pest. He’s quick, athletic and relentless and excels at pressuring the ball, making up for being a bit undersized for the 2. While his rejection of Dwyane Wade last week is the play everyone is talking about, my heart was won earlier this season, when Orlando’s guards could scarcely get the ball across the time line against him.

Add a heavy dose of Bradley to the mix, and the result has been that an already excellent defense has become an absolutely terrifying one. In this nine-game stretch, the Celtics have allowed 79 points or fewer five times, and the only teams to beat them are Chicago and San Antonio.

The lineup data supports the idea that Boston has found itself a defensive lineup for the ages. Check out the carnage on NBA.com’s advanced stats tool: When Bradley and Garnett play together, Boston gives up 88.8 points per 100 possessions, allows 38.8 percent shooting and forces nearly one turnover for every assist. This is scary stuff, and it’s not one of those small-minute flukes, either — they’ve played 658 minutes together.

If that world class pest shows up on Tuesday night for Game 2 — and manages to hit a few shots — the Celtics may just be able to get back to Boston with this series tied up 1-1, with or without Rondo.

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