Brandon Bass' importance to the Celtics became all too clear last Wednesday when he crumpled to the floor with an apparent knee injury against the Atlanta Hawks and teammates rushed to his aid. Fortunately, Bass immediately recovered without even needing a trip to the locker room. On Saturday, over the course of Boston's 94-82 bounce-back win over the New Jersey Nets, his importance was reiterated, but this time it was his play, rather than a cringe-inducing fall, that sent the message.
Meanwhile, Avery Bradley followed Bass' lead as he continued to carve out his own niche of importance for Boston on Saturday. Bass registered a rugged 18-point, 11-rebound double-double, and Bradley chipped in 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting, helping fuel a strong second half that saw the Celtics race away from New Jersey, helping to atone for Friday's unsightly 84-79 loss to the Toronto Raptors.
The win, coupled with the Bucks' loss to Indiana, allowed the Celtics to clinch a playoff berth.
Kevin Garnett scored a team-high 21 points and grabbed a team-high 12 rebounds for Boston, Paul Pierce contributed 17 points, and Rajon Rondo racked up 15 more assists, bringing his streak of games with 10 or more helpers to a robust 21. But Bass and Bradley may have been the most influential in Boston's outpacing of the Nets.
With the score knotted at 48 at halftime, Celtics coach Doc Rivers reiterated a need for his club to initiate offense in the post -- something Boston wasn't too keen on during Friday's loss -- and Bass led the charge out of intermission, feeding Garnett for a powerful right-handed slam for Boston's first bucket out of the break.
Bass then responded with the play that exemplified his night: After Garnett missed a jumper from the left corner, Bass skied over New Jersey's Kris Humphries -- who clearly held the better rebounding position -- snared the ball with two hands, and carved his way closer to the rim before exploding up for a loud two-handed dunk. Both plays helped spark a quick 7-0 run for Boston, answering the need to establish a sense of control early and not give the Nets any further confidence over the final two quarters.
"The first quarter I thought we started out shooting jumpers again and [Friday] night I think it was 47 jumpers and nine post-ups for the game," Rivers told reporters afterward. "You're not going to win a lot of games on fire that way. We definitely talked about that at halftime. In and out, you know? Instead of out to in. It's a tough one because we have great shooters, but you can't fall in love with the jump shot, especially when fatigue is a factor, and it's absolutely a factor right now."
Even if it might not have been Rivers' first preference, the jump shot ultimately helped stretch things open for good for Boston, thanks to Bradley. Channeling his inner Ray Allen, Bradley knocked down three consecutive 3-point field goals from the right corner (all coming on feeds from Rondo) after the Nets had closed within 6 midway through the third quarter.
Bradley's first three gave Boston a 9-point advantage, and his second one gave Boston a double-digit edge, putting the Celtics up by 12. After a minute went by in which New Jersey scored on a Marshon Brooks layup, Bradley lined up another 3-ball from the right corner and buried it, putting the Celtics ahead, 72-59.
"Avery made two big threes for us," Rivers told reporters. "Three, but the two were huge because it stretched the game open."
Garnett closed Boston's third-quarter scoring with a 19-footer, and the C's carried a 13-point edge into the final frame.
At the end of the day, Bass did nothing more than continue his string of consistent performances. Quietly, he has been one of Boston's most reliable producers all season by being perfectly content in the shadow left by his future Hall-of-Fame teammates. Saturday night marked the third time in four games that Bass has come through with a double-double, with his renewed attention on the glass perhaps the most important component of his production. On Saturday, Boston owned a 51-42 edge on the glass, with Bass and Garnett grabbing double-digit rebounds and Greg Stiemsma hauling in nine.
And Bradley continues to thrive in his starting role, with his most noticeable improvement of late being his jump shot, from both midrange and long distance. Bradley has made just 12 3-pointers all season, but a quarter of those came in Saturday night's game, and eight of the 12 have come during April.
While initially contributing with his defense and a number of baseline cuts, Bradley has expanded his game steadily over the last month, and looks much more confident in his jump-shooting ability. What's more, his teammates are encouraging the activity, as evidenced by Rondo repeatedly finding him for open looks from the right corner on Saturday. While still improving as a player, Bradley's offensive development is hard on the heels of his defensive prowess, with Saturday's effort marking the sixth time he's scored in double figures in the last nine games.