Commentary

Building a rep with his rips

Pickpocket Bradley's impact on the Celtics' fortunes can't be understated

Updated: March 15, 2013, 10:50 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

Introducing the Rip List.

Jason Kidd, Goran Dragic, Greivis Vasquez, Jimmer Fredette, Ty Lawson, Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Nate Robinson, Damian Lillard, Earl Watson, Jarrett Jack, Jeff Teague, Russell Westbrook, and Kyle Lowry.

It's an impressive index of NBA playmakers who all have one common thread: They've been picked clean by Celtics guard Avery Bradley this season.

[+] EnlargeAvery Bradley
Barry Chin/Getty ImagesAvery Bradley swipes the ball from Atlanta Hawks point guard Jeff Teague during the first quarter last Friday night. Bradley has 41 steals in 33 games this season.

And if you don't mind a little clutter to your on-court pickpockets, you can add Josh Smith, Luis Scola, Brandon Knight, Tyson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Jimmy Butler, James Harden, Dwyane Wade, and Mario Chalmers to that list. Kobe Bryant got baited into a turnover, while Steph Curry managed to escape a mugging with his lunch money -- barely.

In 33 games this season, Bradley has produced 41 steals. Those 1.2 swipes per contest won't put him among the league leaders, but it's how he generates his thefts: hounding or baiting some of the league's top ball-handlers -- often before the midcourt stripe -- and picking them clean for easy transition buckets.

But that's only part of Bradley's defensive game, and his role in stabilizing the Celtics' season cannot be understated.

Boston, a team that has perennially ranked in the top 5 in defensive rating in the Kevin Garnett era, sat 14th in the league with an unsightly defensive rating of 102.1 on Jan. 1, the day before Bradley made his season debut after a pair of offseason shoulder surgeries shelved him for the first 30 games.

Since Bradley's return, Boston boasts a defensive rating of 96.9, the second-best mark in the league in that span (only Indiana has been better). It's a big reason why, beset by three season-ending injuries including the loss of All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, the Celtics are 21-13 since that point (and Bradley sat out one of those losses against Chicago).

If not for the time he missed, it's not far-fetched to say that Bradley deserves some consideration for the league's Defensive Player of the Year award (or a spot on the league's all-defense team at the very least). Scoff if you will -- and there's no denying it's a big man's award as no guard has taken home the honor since Seattle's Gary Payton, who undoubtedly influenced Tacoma-born Bradley, swiped the award during the 1995-96 season -- but Bradley's individual impact on Boston's defense this season is tangible.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers has often noted that integrating so many new faces at the start of the season detoured Boston's defense. But lately he's submitted to the Bradley hype.

"Avery's return was bigger than people know," said Rivers. "It really was."

Bradley's individual numbers pad his resume. Among those with at least 300 plays defended this season, Bradley ranks first in the league allowing a minuscule 0.669 points per play, according to Synergy Sports data (Milwaukee's Larry Sanders is second at 0.704). What's more, opponents shoot a league-low 29.7 percent against Bradley (Sanders is next closest at 32 percent) and score a mere 30.9 percent of total possessions (yes, also tops in the league, with Chicago's Taj Gibson his nearest competition at 33.2 percent).

Rivers It's like Scottie Pippen -- when you played the Bulls, you were praying that, 'I hope he guards the other guy tonight.'

-- Celtics coach Doc Rivers, comparing Avery Bradley's defense to Pippen's

Fortunately for Bradley, the league's players don't vote for the NBA all-defensive teams, otherwise he'd have no chance at landing a spot. He's infuriated far too many of his opponents with his relentless hounding.

Opponents have reportedly pleaded with Bradley (or his teammates) to ease up as he makes the seemingly simple task of getting the ball past halfcourt an arduous chore. In Wednesday's win over the Toronto Raptors, old friend Sebastian Telfair appeared so infuriated with Bradley's pressure that he got himself ejected from the game (or, at the very least, he wasn't lamenting getting tossed for twice barking at officials in a lopsided game).

Rivers noted how Bradley single-handedly changed the complexion of Wednesday's visit from the Raptors, crawling inside the head of both Telfair and Lowry while fueling Boston's late third-quarter run by short-circuiting the entire Toronto offense. Rivers noted how Toronto's two guards became so hellbent on retaliating against Bradley's pressure that they essentially lost focus of the game.

Rivers has taken to comparing Bradley to the likes of Scottie Pippen, Derek Harper, and Alvin Robertson, with Michael Jordan's former running mate his favorite parallel.

"It's like Scottie Pippen -- when you played the Bulls, you were praying that, 'I hope he guards the other guy tonight,' " explained Rivers. "Because [Pippen] was one of those guys that could guard the 1, 2, or 3. And you were hoping, 'OK, I hope [he guards the other guy].' I mean, how rare is it that you want Michael to guard you? Over Scottie.

"And I'm thinking that's Avery, and even Courtney [Lee]. Courtney's a good defender as well, but they're probably thinking, 'I'll take him over him.' And [Bradley's] feet are so good. I mean, he stays in front of the ball, he gets up into it, and it's big for us. He's really making us a better defensive team."

Boston's team numbers don't fully hammer home Bradley's value, maybe because he's helped resuscitate the team's entire defensive efforts. For the season, Boston ranks fourth in the NBA with a defensive rating of 99.3 and that number improves by a point when Bradley is on the floor.

Bradley grinds down the opposing team's top ball-handler and forces opponents into late-clock shots because of how long it takes to simply initiate the offense (which alone has rescued a Boston team that struggled defending open perimeter looks early in the year -- including from behind the 3-point line -- due to opponent ball movement). While he's prone to occasional lapses (like Tuesday in Charlotte), Bradley has helped limit dribble penetration, which has aided Boston's back line that isn't forced into help defense nearly as often.

The five-man unit of Bradley, Jason Terry, Jeff Green, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett has become a popular closing lineup for Boston. In 59 minutes together this season, the unit owns a defensive rating of 92.1 (coupled with a glitzy offensive rating of 105.9 makes it one of Boston's most effective lineups this season). Defensively, the group is relentless, with Bradley at the forefront.

Even Rivers acknowledges the Rip List.

"You haven't seen guys get ripped at halfcourt the way Avery has done," Rivers said during his weekly appearance on Boston sports radio WEEI (93.7 FM) on Thursday. "He has a list of guys now. I mean, it's almost every single -- he got Westbrook, he did it [Wednesday] night to Lowry. You really haven't seen that since maybe Walt Frazier used to get guys, if you remember, with that strip at halfcourt. But to do it as consistent as Avery does it, I don't know if I've ever seen it."

Yes, as Goose noted in "Top Gun": "The list is long and distinguished." And it's still growing.

Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com. Special thanks to Jay Ouellette of Red's Army for helping compile the Rip List.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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