In the midst of a wild first round playoff series between the Celtics and Bulls, Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley has proven to be a huge asset both on and off the court for the C’s.
Bradley has quietly been one of the most improved players in the NBA this year. He’s averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, and field goal percentage.
But where most people know the 26-year-old guard is most vital is his impact at the defensive end of the floor. Next to Kawhi Leonard, Bradley might be the best lockdown defender in all of basketball. He was named to the NBA’s all-defensive first team at the end of last season and there’s probably no better evidence of how valuable Bradley’s defense can be than this clip of him shutting down Kyrie Irving, one of the NBA’s most impossible one-on-one assignments, late in the game to help seal a win for Boston.
For about a 20 game stretch this season, Bradley missed time with a nagging ankle injury that caused him to miss most of the games leading up to the all-star break. Luckily for Boston, that’s about the time Isaiah Thomas really hit his stride and was single-handedly leading the Celtics to wins while scoring 30 points on a nightly basis.
But now that Bradley is back and the Celtics are all healthy again, they’ve fought their way back into their series against the Bulls. The schematics of why the Celtics dropped their first two games of the series on their home floor isn’t hard to figure out: they can’t rebound for shit.
The rebounding in Boston isn’t a new problem. They haven’t been in the top half of the league in rebounding for over 10 years and Chicago has been taking advantage of it. Robin Lopez and Bobby Portis have been crashing the glass on nearly every possession to take advantage of Boston’s lack of size in the low post.
This is important because before he got injured, Avery Bradley, a 6’3″ guard, was leading the entire Celtics team in rebounding at slightly over eight per game, which is as incredible as it is sad.
But in this series, Bradley has been using what he calls “desperate defense” to try and fend off Bulls all-star guard Jimmy Butler. What Boston lacks in interior size, they more than make up for in perimeter defense. You’re probably not going to find a tougher front line to score against than the Celtics’ trio of Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Marcus Smart. They play a tough, aggressive brand of defense and together, they’ve done a pretty decent job of keeping Butler contained.
While Butler is averaging about 25 points in the series thus far, the Bulls have still been outscored both when he’s on the bench AND when he’s on the floor. He’s shooting way below his average from 3-point territory at just 23% and a large part of that is because Bulls guard Rajon Rondo is now sidelined for the rest of the series with a thumb injury.
Losing Rondo and his ability to see the floor and find open teammates means that the Bulls offense is now dependent on Jimmy Butler getting his own shot, and with Bradley, Smart, and Crowder on you for 48 minutes, that’s going to be beyond difficult to do. Butler is a good, but not great shooter and the Celtics have let him continue to shoot from outside. He has only hit 4 out of his 17 attempts from behind the arc in the series and Bradley has done a great job not letting Butler get to the spots he’s most comfortable in. People will look at Butler’s stat line that shows he scored 33 points in game four and believe he had a great game. But look closer and you’ll see that he shot a whopping 23 free throws, a number that Chicago can’t count on their star player getting for the rest of the series. Butler shot more free throws than the entire Celtics team in game four.
But Bradley, among others, has also been a caring shoulder to lean on for teammate Isaiah Thomas, who lost his sister Chyna in a car accident just before this series began. Thomas credits Bradley and the entire Celtics organization for keeping him sane during his time of grief.
What remains to be seen from this Celtics team is who can score when Thomas comes out of the game. Boston has looked anemic offensively when Thomas goes to the bench and we’re still waiting on that one guy who can turn it on and get his own offense who doesn’t wear the number four on his jersey. In game four, Gerald Green notched a new playoff career high and provided a huge lift for the Celtics off the bench. But for right now, the Celtics need either Bradley or Al Horford to significantly contribute at the offensive end of the floor or they will have a difficult time getting out of the East.