The buzz around Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley through two preseason games has been that he's found new ways to be more efficient offensively. From this vantage point, it simply seems like he's gone back to what originally put him on the NBA map.
It's easy to forget now, but when Bradley broke through during the 2011-12 season -- essentially muscling aside Ray Allen for the starting shooting guard job -- it was because he combined his calling-card defense with an offensive game that leaned heavily on cuts and corner 3-pointers.
In recent seasons, much of Bradley's offense has moved further away from the basket. He's taken more long 2s -- the sort that make analytics folks cringe -- and more above-the-break 3-pointers. Last season, he attempted a career-low 16.8 percent of his field attempts at the rim; this after 41 percent of his attempts came there during his breakout season.
More damning: Despite Bradley's being second to only Isaiah Thomas in scoring last season at 13.9 points per game, Boston's on/off-court advanced numbers suggested the team's offense was actually 4.3 points per 100 possessions better without him on the floor (though an anemic offensive first unit didn't help Bradley's cause).
The early returns during Boston's European vacation suggest Bradley has embraced returning to his roots. He's quickly developed chemistry with slick-passing big man David Lee and that has generated layups off backdoor cuts. And Bradley is running to the corners again and waiting for open looks off ball movement. Back in 2011-12, 64.8 percent of Bradley's 3-pointers came in the corner and he shot 40.7 percent that season. Last season, a career-low 35.8 percent of his 3-point attempts came from the corner and his percentage dipped to 35.2 percent overall.
Bradley scored a team-high 17 points on 7-of-14 shooting during Thursday's 111-96 win over Real Madrid at the Barclaycard Center. He missed his first 3-pointer of the preseason, but he's still 7-for-8 overall from distance and you can just feel the efficiency spike in his offensive game.
That uptick hasn't come with any downturn in defense. Celtics coach Brad Stevens made sure to single out Bradley's defense after he limited Madrid's Jaycee Carroll to a mere four points on 1-of-9 shooting.
Bradley did just about everything well, offensively, Thursday. There was one sequence in the first half in which he lost the ball in transition, but gathered it and delivered a spinning 360 feed to Thomas for a layup. The pass was so pretty Evan Turner, missing his second straight game with knee soreness, hobbled to midcourt to deliver a celebratory body bump as Bradley walked back to the team huddle following a timeout.
Bradley credited Lee's passing for generating easy points. Boston's first bucket of the game came when Lee threaded a highlight-worthy backhanded bounce pass from the high post to a cutting Bradley for a layup. The duo hooked up again in the third quarter when Bradley's man cheated away toward a dribbling Lee and Bradley sneaked in free on the baseline.
Bradley has thrived bleeding out in transition. When he goes at the basket, teammates are pushing the ball ahead for layup attempts. Other times he settles in the corners. There was one sequence Thursday in which Lee pushed the ball ahead to Jae Crowder in the middle of the floor. When the defense rushed toward Crowder, he found Bradley open in the corner for a 3-pointer.
Another encouraging sequence: When Bradley pump-faked on a closeout and his defender flew by, he dribbled sideways at the 3-point arc and launched a triple. Last season he would have taken two dribbles in and settled for a long 2-point look.
Bradley, the No. 19 pick in the 2010 draft, is easily Boston's longest tenured player while entering his sixth season. But he's also still just 24 years old and is eager to embrace what the coaching staff is trying to do to maximize his efficiency.
Before Boston's overseas excursion, Stevens was asked about what's next for Bradley's development.
"I think a lot of it is consistency," he said. "With young players, we’ve seen Avery have some spectacular games in his young career. I think that, going from having three to four out of 10 good games to six or seven out of 10 good games is the difference in great teams and great players. I anticipate that Avery is going to make a big jump this year and continue to progress and be more consistent."
On another occasion, Stevens didn't hide the offensive tweaks planned for Bradley.
"We’ve got him doing some similar stuff with a heavier focus on the corners," said Stevens. "And then really trying to emphasize playing off hand-backs and cuts because he’s an excellent cutter."
One thing that's never wavered about Bradley: his optimism. Bradley noted earlier this preseason how he was mocked for suggesting last summer that the Celtics could make the playoffs. This season, he's wondered out loud why Boston can't compete for a title. He doubled down on that sentiment in Milan, Italy, saying the Celtics could "shock the NBA."
Having a more efficient Bradley will certainly give the team a better chance at delivering such a surprise.
Three more thoughts from Boston's win in Madrid on Thursday:
• Three amigos: Boston's three rookies -- Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter and Jordan Mickey -- played the entire fourth quarter and more than held their own against Madrid's regulars. Rozier was the star of the stint while connecting on 5 of 7 field goals for 12 of his 14 points. He added three assists and two steals while spearheading Boston at both ends of the floor.
• Crowder-ed box: His line will blend into a very busy box score, but Crowder quietly had a nice game, putting up eight points on just two field goal attempts with six assists and four rebounds. He was a team-best plus-19 in 22 minutes of floor time.
• Loose balls: The Celtics played without Amir Johnson (illness), Perry Jones III (death in family) and Turner. Every player logged at least 11 minutes of floor time and all 13 had at least one field goal. ... Boston put up a whopping 96 shot attempts while leaning on up-tempo basketball (and still got to the free throw line for 28 attempts). ... The Celtics had 15 steals and Madrid turned the ball over 26 times. ... The Celtics get nearly a week off from game action now while returning stateside. Boston visits the Nets (Wednesday) and Knicks (Friday) next week. ... Madrid's Luka Doncic is only 16 years old, but he played 16 minutes in Thursday's game.