To the surprise of some wearing shamrock-shaped glasses, Avery Bradley wasn’t a magical cure-all for the Celtics. Bradley played his first game of the season Wednesday night against Memphis, his surgically repaired shoulders finally ready for action. Still, Boston lost, 93-83, extending its skid to four straight losses and eight losses in 10 games.
The 22-year-old guard will make an impact, but it will take time. Bradley played just 20 minutes against the Grizzlies, and he will need more floor time before he can find the defensive rhythm that made him one of the league’s premier perimeter stoppers last season. And he’ll need even more time to regain his still-developing offensive game.
There were, however, some signs that Bradley’s return might push the Celtics back in the right direction. They had stretches where they matched the defensive intensity and stinginess of the Grizzlies, who lead the league in points allowed per game (89.9). But there were also signs that this Boston team, with Bradley or without him, has fallen too far down the mountain to make any claim at being king.
There’s still plenty of time for the 14-17 Celtics to turn things around just like they did a year ago. After 31 games last season, Boston was 15-16 and on a four-game losing streak (sound familiar?), but turned it on in the second half and came one game from reaching the Finals.
Knowing that history, it would be foolish to totally discount another turnaround. But having watched this team this season, it would also be foolish to think another turnaround is guaranteed. Too much has gone too wrong for that kind of certainty.
While these Celtics have made their living with defense, their offensive ineptitude has been at the heart of the current woes. They’ve topped 100 points only once in the last 10 games, averaging 89.5 in that span. That’s even below their season average of 95.5 ppg, which is 18th in the 30-team league.
To be honest, even when it won the title in 2008 and went to the Finals in 2010, Boston has been just an average offensive team. But when it came to must-have baskets, Paul Pierce has been able to deliver and lift the Celtics to another offensive level. Pierce is still scoring 19.8 points per game, right around his average for the last five years, but he’s lost the ability to carry the team. He has trouble getting past his defender, and even more trouble finishing when he does get in the paint.
Without the old Pierce, Boston is too reliant on Rajon Rondo’s playmaking. If Rondo isn’t able to set up teammates for a shot on nearly every possession, the Celtics’ offense clunks. Which is a big part of the reason why the team scored just 77 against the Clippers on Dec. 27, a game Rondo departed early with a bruised right hip, and put up just 83 the next night against Golden State with Rondo resting on the bench.
Add the disappointing offensive contributions of Jeff Green, Jason Terry, Brandon Bass and Courtney Lee to Rondo’s injury, and Pierce’s lost step, and you can see why the Celtics have struggled to score, and why they sit fourth in the division and ninth in the conference.
Yes, there are real reasons to be worried about the Celtics. But there are some reasons for optimism as well, and it does start with Bradley. Sure, Memphis’s Mike Conley finished with a game-high 23 points and nine assists Wednesday, but 16 of his points (and 13 of his 15 shots) came when Bradley was on the bench
“Avery was terrific on the ball. Avery’s going to help us; you could see that. And that’ll be immediate for us,” Coach Doc Rivers said when he finally arrived at the post-game press conference on Wednesday, having taken extra time in addressing the team. “You know, when we’re struggling for points and needed somebody offensively … and Avery will get that too. But you could see him struggling with his shot a little bit. But he’s going to be a big help for us.”
Once Bradley gets back in his complete defensive flow, and once the team can find its flow around him, the Celtics have the potential to get back to their elite defensive ways (currently they’re giving up 97.9 ppg, 17th in the NBA). Like Rivers said, Bradley will also contribute on the other end, but perhaps more importantly Bradley’s presence will allow Terry to contribute offensively.
With Bradley out, Terry has been forced into roles outside of his specialty as instant offense off the bench with a flair for the fourth quarter. Terry has started some games and logged more minutes than Rivers would probably like, and he hasn’t produced the kind of late-game points he’s known for. But last night, with Bradley sharing some of the minutes, Terry hit two fourth-quarter 3-pointers that spurred a 17-4 run and brought Boston to within five, 83-78, with 4:53 to play.
It isn’t much for Celtics fans to hang their hopes on, but it’s something. And given the way this team has been playing lately, any kind of something will have to do.