- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Two months ago the question would have seemed absurd, so it's somewhat appropriate that Doc Rivers got asked it on April Fool's Day. But there wasn't a hint of jest in the inquiry.
Despite Boston's overwhelming recent success with Bradley in the starting lineup while Allen battles lingering soreness in his right ankle, most in the room probably expected Rivers to reject the notion as strongly as Bradley had swatted Dwyane Wade a short time before during Boston's 91-72 triumph Sunday at TD Garden.
"I don't know yet," Rivers said.
Let's hit the pause button right there. The mere fact that Rivers is noncommittal speaks volumes about Bradley's recent play. Back in January, Rivers played Bradley-caliber defense when reporters peppered him with questions about the second-year guard's offensive woes.
Now, as Bradley's game blossoms and his offensive abilities catch up with his defensive talents, Rivers is forced to debate the merits of keeping Bradley on the floor and shuffling a member of the Big Three, the league's greatest 3-point shooter and a surefire Hall of Famer to the bench in order to give Boston what may be its best shot at winning a title this season.
"We're playing well, but we've also played well with Ray, by the way," Rivers said. "I think we forget that part. The good thing is that we have options."
It's been a while since Boston has had options. For the first three years of the Big Three era, Rivers didn't have to think about the starting lineup (when healthy, it was always Rajon Rondo, Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins). The past two years have seen multiple iterations of the starting unit, but it's been a scramble to plug holes, not the result of a young player trying to pry his way into the mix.
Rivers hasn't been afraid to make a bold decision about the starting lineup this season. After the Celtics seesawed their way through the first half of the year, Rivers told his coaches before the All-Star break that the team would shuffle Kevin Garnett to center (not exactly thrilling news for the veteran) and Brandon Bass into the starting group. Since that point, Boston is 15-5, the second-best record in the NBA (only Chicago has been better).
That's helped Boston go from a tentative playoff team (wasn't it just a week ago that we were wondering if Milwaukee and New York would bump them from a final spot in the East?) to a potential No. 3 seed (even with a daunting schedule, the Celtics are just 1.5 games back of Orlando, assuming they can stay ahead of Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division).
For a Boston team that most were ready to bury at the All-Star break, its recent success seems unfathomable. For some, so is the idea of a Bradley-for-Allen lineup swap, even despite the recent success. But the statistics are hard to ignore. Consider:
• The Celtics are 10-1 without Allen this season, including 5-1 in the six games Bradley has replaced him recently -- and if not for the Mickael Pietrus injury in Philadelphia, the Celtics might be 6-0. What's more, Boston is 11-4 with Bradley as a starter this season, including his time spent subbing for injured Rondo earlier in the year.
• Not including Sunday's game -- maybe Boston's most dominant win of the recent stretch -- a starting five of Bradley, Rondo, Pierce, Garnett and Bass owned a plus-24.70 net rating in 77.2 minutes together, according to lineup data logged by BasketballValue.com. What's more, Boston's offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) is 114.57 with that lineup and its defensive rating is 89.96 -- both much better than the team's season averages (99.82 on offense; 99.63 on defense).
• Allen with the second-half starting lineup has a plus-2.11 net rating (103.89 offensive; 101.78 defensive) over a team-high 268.68 minutes. That's encouraging offensive production, but hammers home how much better the Celtics' defense has been with Bradley on the floor.
In the end, it's hard not to keep going back to something Rivers often repeats: "At the end of the day, we're a defensive team."
If that's the case, it's going to be mighty hard to give Bradley the hook with the way Boston is playing defense lately. Sure, you shouldn't lose your starting job to injury, but when has that stopped anyone in New England? (Right, Drew?)
The Celtics are downright suffocating opponents lately and it's helping to fuel their offense as well. It's a result of not only Bradley but the team as a whole elevating its play. But Bradley's impact is undeniable.
The good news for Rivers is that he doesn't need to make a decision at the moment. Before Sunday's game against Miami, he expressed hope that Allen would be back on the floor by Wednesday's visit from the San Antonio Spurs, but admitted that Allen he isn't moving well due to the ankle injury and there's no guarantee that will happen.
Given the Celtics' challenging slate moving forward, Rivers can leave Bradley in the starting lineup and get a better sense of how the team will perform against playoff-caliber opponents with him running with the first unit. If cracks start to appear, the decision becomes simpler.
The team also could bring Allen back slowly, possibly utilizing him off the bench for a taste of how that might impact the second unit. Plus, Boston's bench has had a scoring problem for years now and Allen's instant offense there might make the Celtics stronger.
You can tell that Rivers likes having to make a tough decision.
"We have players with confidence," he said. "And we have a lot of them. That's where [all the injuries this] season has helped out. It's been good for us."
Doc Rivers may have a dilemma on his hands when Ray Allen returns.