Commentary

C's 'pitbulls' on guard for Steph Curry

Courtney Lee, Avery Bradley determined to keep high-scoring Warrior in check

Updated: February 28, 2013, 10:46 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg and Greg Payne | ESPNBoston.com

WALTHAM, Mass. -- As soon as Courtney Lee heard Stephen Curry's name, he knew where the conversation was headed.

"First of all, listen, you can put this on record: He's not scoring 54 in the [TD] Garden," said Lee, referencing how Curry hung an eye-popping 54 points on the New York Knicks at MSG on Wednesday night behind 18-of-28 shooting (11-of-13 beyond the 3-point arc) during a 109-105 loss.

"You know what I mean?" added Lee. "Where's my little pitbull at?"

[+] EnlargeStephen Curry
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images The Knicks couldn't keep up with Stephen Curry, who exploded for 54 points Wednesday.

Lee excused himself at that moment to go track down backcourt mate Avery Bradley, the pair having taken on the moniker "The Pitbulls" for their tenacious and rather relentless defensive pressure.

"The pitbull is not letting that go down," Lee said while pointing at Bradley. "And when the pitbull gets tired, you've got the other pitbull right here growling."

Asked if there was any way Curry would repeat his offensive outburst in Boston on Friday night, Bradley said simply, "No way. No way."

The Warriors can use it as bulletin-board fodder if they'd like, but this doesn't have anything to do with the opposition. Lee and Bradley are insanely proud of their defense-first mentality and simply can't fathom any opposing player putting up a big number against them -- Curry or otherwise.

And they can be downright defensive about it.

In late January, Kyrie Irving erupted for 40 points as the Celtics fell to the Cavaliers on the road. When some folks on Twitter gave Bradley some grief about it, he tweeted in response, "Please stop sayin(g) he gave me 40. Nobody will ever score 40 on me unless they take 40 shots."

Bradley soon deleted the tweet and explained later that he was simply frustrated about the team's inability to corral Irving that night. But chances are he stands by his declaration.

And stats suggest it'd probably take a heck of a lot more than 40 shots for an opponent to get 40 points. According to Synergy Sports data, Bradley is allowing a minuscule 0.678 points per possession, which ranks in the 96th percentile among all NBA players.

Take it a step further and narrow that down to all players with at least 225 plays, and Bradley ranks second in the league behind only David West (0.674 points per play). Opponents are shooting a mere 30.9 percent against him (59-of-191 overall) and turn the ball over a ridiculous 14.7 percent of the time. Opponents generate points on a mere 31.4 percent of plays against Bradley, the lowest number in the league for players with at least 225 defensive possessions against them.

Bradley's ball pressure is a game-changer. Celtics coach Doc Rivers pointed to Monday's win over Utah to showcase how his on-ball defense took the Jazz frontcourt out of the game because they couldn't even get into their sets.

Boston has been a decidedly different defensive team since he returned from double shoulder surgery at the start of the calendar year. The Celtics were 14-17 after his debut on Jan. 2 against the Memphis Grizzlies and 16-10 since. In Boston's first 30 games this season, its defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) was an unfathomable 102.1, ranking 14th in the league for a team that has lived in the top five in the Garnett era.

Over the past 27 games, despite the rash of injuries endured, Boston owns a defensive rating of 97.2, second best in the league in that span (trailing only the Indiana Pacers). Boston's defensive rating when Bradley is on the floor at TD Garden is a mere 92.5 in 14 home games.

So it is with plenty of confidence that both Bradley and Lee emphatically state that Curry won't do what he did inside Madison Square Garden. Their teammates tend to agree.

[+] EnlargeStephen Curry and Jeff Green
Rocky Widner/Getty ImagesStephen Curry had 22 points and 9 assists in a 101-83 win over the Celtics on Dec. 29.

As captain Paul Pierce noted, "Great offense trumps great defense every time when you have a special player like [Curry]. It's going to be tough -- unless you have a guy like Avery Bradley on him."

Pierce was then asked about the luxury of having a player like Bradley to blanket an opposing scorer.

"Every great team needs a player like that," said Pierce. "Especially a great defense team. A guy who can go out there and -- there's so many great scorers in this league and great individuals -- you need that one guy that can go out there and kind of slow these type of guys down. We have that in Avery Bradley. He sacrifices so much -- I believe he could give us a lot more offensively, but he's so focused on the defensive end because it has an impact on the whole team.

"In my eyes, he's probably the best on-the-ball defender in the NBA. I'd be very surprised if he didn't make the all-defensive team."

Teams have started setting hard picks on Bradley, hoping to slow him down and give their ball handlers some breathing room. Celtics coach Doc Rivers expects the Warriors to do the same, but hopes Bradley can throw Curry off his game with his bite-your-leg-and-won't-let-go defense.

"I don't know if Avery is going to shut down everyone, but I know he's going to give you the attempt to pressure," said Rivers. "And ball pressure is important. I just use the football analogy: If you didn't blitz Tom Brady and you just let him sit back there all day, he'd pick you apart. It's the same in basketball. If you let them just sit there with no pressure, they're going to pick you apart. Avery is our blitzer."

Rivers also expects to lean on Lee in that role and believes Terrence Williams can add to the ball pressure off the bench. The Celtics know that even if Curry is corralled, the Warriors can put up points, as they did in a 101-83 thumping in Oakland in December.

But that was before Bradley rejoined the team.

Curry hasn't played in Boston since March 4, 2011, when he was held to nine points on 4-of-11 shooting over 32 minutes. Bradley played a mere eight minutes off the bench as part of his injury-slowed rookie season. This is the first real showdown between the two young guards. And Lee likes his fellow pitbull's chances.

"Avery's going to do a good job of picking him up full court. He's going to wear him down," said Lee. "He played a lot of minutes that last game, got a lot of shots. That's tiring for any player. So Avery's going to pick him up full court and then when Avery gets tired, I'll slide over and do the same."

Added Lee: "He's a guy you can't take any breaks on, you can't relax. You have to know where he's at at all times. He's a great shooter, he can also penetrate and get in the lane and shoot the floater. But what we're going to do is pressure him as much as possible, make him uncomfortable."

As uncomfortable as the thought of giving up 54 points makes Lee and Bradley.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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