He’s a second year guard from the University of Texas, and a player who entered a mear 31 games as a rookie for the Boston Celtics. He isn’t a great ball handler, not a particularly good jump shooter, and won’t be on the tips of any casual NBA fan’s tongues anytime soon. But come playoff time, there may not be a more important role player at Doc Rivers’ disposal than Avery Bradley, the defensive phenom who has been called the best on-the-ball defender since Michael Cooper. (That’s taking the hyperbole a smidge too far IMHO, but since this little nugget was communicated via Twitter then it must be so, but more on that later.)
I’m sure you’re asking yourself, how in the world can Avery Bradley possibly become Doc’s secret weapon off the bench? Bradley averaged just 1.7 points as a rookie, and that number is up to a meager 4.2 for the 2011-12 season. He’s averaging 16 minutes per game. He plays behind Rajon Rondo at the point guard position, which is sort of like being Denzel Washington’s stunt double in a big-budget movie – what you do while you’re out there is important, but at the end of the day everyone is really there to see Denzel.
But come playoff time, Avery Bradley brings the one thing that can swing the momentum in a tense playoff game – and possibly alter the outcome of a series in the process.
Bradley, while probably not the best on-the-ball defender since Coop, is a ball-hawking freak who brings a hyper-kinetic energy to the defensive end of the floor. And when Rivers calls his number, you can rest assured that the defensive intensity won’t take a turn south when he steps on the court. And given the right situation, the right moment with the right set of circumstances, Bradley could alter a series much in the same way that Leon Powe altered the 2008 NBA Finals.
Well, consider this little known fact about our man AB: In addition to upping the defensive amperage when he enters a game, Bradley is actually a better shooter than most realize – better than Rondo, which isn’t saying much, but that in itself keeps opposing defenses from sagging in, and in a tight playoff game may give Paul Pierce or Ray Allen and extra microsecond to squeeze off a key jump shot. And with guys like Pierce and Allen, that small separation can mean the difference between drawing iron and ripping the net.
Now don’t freak out, I’m not saying that Bradley is better than Rondo, or that Bradley should start in place of Rondo, or that the Celtics should trade Rondo to make room for Bradley in the starting rotation. Make no mistake: Bradley will never be as good as Rondo. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be just as key to the team’s success, albeit in a supporting role.
And that is why the case of Avery Bradley is so curious. There are other players who figure to be important contributors off the bench come playoff time, with Brandon Bass leading the way. (Assuming he’s not in the starting lineup, but that’s another story – thank you very much for being the fragile man that you are, Jermaine O’Neal.) Bradley has relied on his speed and quickness to find angles to the rim, and that has been his first instinct, but lately he’s also settled down on the perimeter. He’s taking his time more, and letting the game come to him instead of rushing things. He’s also looking for his shot, and the shots are actually starting to fall.
Rivers has gone on record as saying that Bradley’s shot has been there all along, but that it has only shown up in practices and pre-game shootarounds. He has confidence that Bradley will start to feel more comfortable during games, and that Bradley’s shot will eventually start to rip the net. And while Bradley will never be mistaken for Ray Allen, it’s looking more and more like Doc’s words are proving prophetic.
Imagine this scenario: The best on-the-ball defender since Michael Cooper, playing key minutes of a key playoff game while an injured Rondo has a wrist or an elbow looked at in the locker room, finds the ball in his hands with the clock running down. Pierce can’t get open. Allen is running off screens but can’t shake free. KG is battling for position but isn’t able to set himself and demand the ball. Bradley elevates, releases.
Stranger things have happened. And while Bradley’s winning shot wouldn’t surprise his teammates, his killer blow would certainly shock the opposing guard who underestimated him.
And that would be a curious thing indeed.