In the days before the start of the 2013 playoffs, typically flatline guard Avery Bradley sat on a bench at the Boston Celtics' practice facility, jittery with anticipation of what was ahead.
"I'm just excited, and, not only that, I feel like I owe my team from last year, not being able to play, getting injured," explained the 22-year-old Bradley, whose 2011-12 season ended because of a recurring shoulder injury during the Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Philadelphia 76ers. Bradley later underwent surgery on both shoulders and missed the first 30 games of the 2012-13 season while rehabbing.
"I'm definitely going to prepare myself [for a first-round series with the New York Knicks], make sure I'm ready, [study] the scouting report," Bradley added at the time. "I'm just excited to start the playoffs. Right now, mentally, I'm ready."
Two weeks later, it's fair to wonder where Bradley is at mentally.
The Celtics have put their young defensive-minded shooting guard in a rather impossible spot, asking him to be the ballhandler that he's not, in addition to defending some of New York's most talented offensive weapons.
Bradley, maybe the player most responsible for resuscitating both the Celtics' team defense and possibly their entire 2012-13 season, finds himself in an ill-timed slump and hasn't displayed his typical steel-nerved confidence. He'd never admit it, but Bradley is overwhelmed.
It's not all his fault, but good luck trying to explain that to Bradley. The third-year guard holds himself to an impossibly high standard, particularly on the defensive end, and his struggles are likely eating away at him.
But if the Celtics, who enter Wednesday's Game 5 in New York in a 3-1 series hole, are to have any shot of actually making things interesting, they absolutely need Bradley to cleanse his mind and attempt to refocus. Right now, he's struggling to help his team at either end of the floor.
During Sunday's Game 4, Raymond Felton, maybe the series' most impactful player, caught fire, and Bradley couldn't hose him down. Boston owned a 20-point lead before Felton scored 16 third-quarter points on 5-of-8 shooting while rallying New York back into the game.
Bradley spent much of that frame getting crunched by Kenyon Martin screens. He tempted Felton by occasionally going under picks and Felton burned him for long jumpers. Other times, Bradley would get snagged on Martin, and Felton went free to the rim (too quick for back-line help to shuffle over).
Bradley sat out the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter, only subbing back in when Brandon Bass fouled out with 4:27 to play in regulation. A few minutes later, he watched Felton come off a Chandler screen and bury an 18-foot jumper that put the Knicks out front for the first -- and only -- time with 78 seconds to play in regulation. Boston recovered, but Bradley didn't dent his stat line in overtime, though he did play all five minutes and helped the Celtics emerge with a win that kept their season alive.
According to Synergy Sports data, Bradley allowed 1.059 points per play in Sunday's Game 4 (18 points on 17 possessions). That number is staggering considering that, among all NBA players with at least 475 defended possessions during the regular season, Bradley led the NBA by allowing a measly 0.697 points per play.
In four games this postseason, Bradley is allowing 0.87 points per play overall (47 points on 54 possessions). Opponents are still shooting only 38.6 percent against him, but his shooting foul percentage has more than doubled from the regular-season level, and it's clear his responsibilities at the offensive end have caused his defense to erode.
The Celtics made Bradley their first-unit point guard after Rajon Rondo tore his ACL in late January, and regular-season competition helped mask his on-ball deficiencies. But the Knicks, with their stable of frisky point guards in Felton, Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni, have applied relentless pressure in hopes of forcing Bradley to make mistakes. In four games, he has nine turnovers and seven assists in 142 minutes of floor time.
What's more, Bradley's shot is off. He's connected on just 11 of 30 attempts (36.7 percent) and six of those makes came at the rim (from everywhere else on the floor, Bradley is shooting 27.8 percent at 5-of-18 overall). After going 7-for-14 shooting with 15 points in Game 1 (feasting on backdoor cuts), Bradley is 4-for-14 with 11 points in the past three games.
Synergy's offensive numbers hammer it home: Bradley has scored 26 points on 40 total possessions this postseason (0.65 points per play). Entering Monday's action, of the 146 players with an offensive possession in the playoffs, Bradley ranked 133rd in points per play (worst on the team).
Celtics coach Doc Rivers has admitted they are asking an immense and likely unfair amount from Bradley.
"It's a hard role for Avery," Rivers said. "We talk about [asking more from captain] Paul [Pierce], but we're asking Avery to pressure, pressure, pressure, and then try to do something that he's not [in running the offense]. Avery's a good basketball player, but we never wanted him to be in the position of facilitating offense, seeing that guys aren't set, trying to get guys in the right spots, delivering the pass on target. We're asking a lot, we understand that."
The Celtics don't have any other option, and seem committed to riding out this storm with Bradley, particularly considering their reserve guards -- outside of Jason Terry's Game 4 performance -- have had little impact on the series. After adding Terry to the starting lineup for Game 3 to provide additional ballhandling support, the Celtics reverted to a lineup Sunday with Bradley as the lone guard. The Celtics are trying to have Jeff Green initiate the offense at times because the Knicks don't want Carmelo Anthony defending the length of the court.
Boston was off on Monday. If Rivers was smart, he would have kicked Bradley out of the weight room and sent him to the Daryl Christopher Wellness Salon and Day Spa inside the team's training facility. Hopefully someone plunked down the $645 for The Ultimate Renewal package.
There's no way Bradley's shoulders can be 100 percent given the wear-and-tear of his position since coming back from surgery (Martin and Chandler alone are testing the stability this series). Bradley also battled a bit of a stomach bug earlier in the series, though he insists he's fine now. His confidence has undoubtedly taken a hit given all that the team has asked him to do, but Bradley is fighting through it all.
Before Game 4, Rivers noted how every tilt from here on out is mental for Boston. That's especially true for Bradley. His struggles to this point of the series can be erased by how he performs moving forward. He must get himself back to where he was, mentally, before the series.
Even that might not be enough to will Boston back into this series, but if the Celtics want to make a charge, they need Bradley operating at peak performance.