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Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Avery Bradley makes sudden impact

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

The Celtics elected to spend a couple of days basking in Orlando sunshine in advance of the back end of a home-and-home with the Magic on Thursday night at the Amway Center.

The slight break in the action of a chaotic, condensed season affords us the opportunity to dip into the Celtics Mailbag and tackle your questions on a shaky start for Boston's basketball squad (though Monday's win went a long way toward calming the panic meters).

Q: Do you think Monday night's dominating performance over the Magic should put fans at ease? Really, how encouraged should we feel? -- Shant (Atlanta, Ga.)

A: How can you not be encouraged by that defensive display? This Celtics season has sort of played out like losing your dog. The first few days you're all positive and holding out hope that he'll show up on the doorstep. But a few weeks pass and you're resigned to the fact that maybe he's just not coming back. Well, that was the Celtics' defense. We thought we saw it at times, maybe went running down the street hoping it was our lost pal (nope, just the neighbor's dog frolicking at the nearest hydrant). But playing a quality opponent without a third of their roster, including two starters, the Celtics put together an absolutely dominating defensive effort against Orlando. Yep, Buster's back home and we're feeding him unhealthy amounts of table scraps because we're just so pumped to see him again. Might even let him sleep in the bed tonight. Of course, he'll be back in the cage if he ever tries to run off again. Rambling dog analogy aside, enjoy it and let's see what happens from here.

Q: And people thought I was useless! Ha! -- Avery Bradley (Boston)

A: You can't help but be happy for Bradley. Ten days ago against Indiana, he essentially got leapfrogged by E'Twaun Moore on the Celtics' depth chart; he didn't even play two nights later against Oklahoma City. Then Rajon Rondo and Keyon Dooling went down and Bradley was thrust into the starting lineup, where we got an extended look at what he's capable of. What a luxury he provides with that on-ball defense. You can see the frustration on the face of opposing ball-handlers when he's picking them up full-court and making them work just to get over the stripe and initiate the offense. Good things happen when you put teams in late-clock situations and we saw that often Monday against the Magic. There's a lot to be optimistic about in this three-game glimpse.

Q: What stuck out in my mind more than anything Monday was the emergence of Avery Bradley. This is now the third game we've seen where he's changed the momentum in Boston's favor. When Dooling returns from injury, how much playing time will Bradley get? Seems like he's the guy they'd go with behind Rondo and have Dooling play off-guard spelling Ray Allen. -- Andy (Reston, Va.)

A: Obviously, Avery is still trying to find his shot, but I like what his speed can do at times on offense. And he utilizes that quickness to get to rebounds, which is encouraging for his size. But it's all about defense for Bradley. While his struggles to run the offense are concerning, the idea of him pestering opposing guards while spelling Rondo could help him nail down that top backup point guard spot. If his defense can help the second unit limit the scoring by the opposition, there's not as great a need to lean on a more offensively talented backup ball-handler in Moore.

Q: With Pierce coming off two good games, both wins, do you think the Celtics' offense runs better when he is constantly handling the ball. It seems like without Rondo playing, Pierce is forced to run the show and it works. -- Rob (Brockton, Mass.)

Paul Pierce
With Paul Pierce looking for his shooting touch, he's been a facilitator of the offense, which is no surprise.

A: There's something to be said for having the offense go through Pierce. That said, I think this is a case of him realizing his shot just isn't consistent right now and elevating other portions of his game to compensate. We've seen this time and again during his career. Celtics coach Doc Rivers admitted at the end of his press conference after Monday's game that it's a good reminder of how well things flow when the offense runs through Pierce and admitted it was good for him to see that. But make no mistake -- Rondo, when healthy, is the quarterback of this team and will initiate most of the offensive plays.

Q: Pierce has showed devout loyalty to the Celtics during his tenure. Why isn't it reciprocated? I never hear anyone mention the fact that he's a captain when discussing reasons not to trade him. I feel like that's entirely overlooked and the "C" means nothing. -- JR (Manchester, N.H.)

A: It's a two-way street. Both sides have been loyal to each other and Pierce admitted as much when addressing the trade rumors for the first time last week. While I've done my best to note how this whole trade hoopla is being blown way out of proportion (and some wins will be the only thing that quiets it), I do think if the wheels came off and the Celtics were clearly not going to be a playoff contender, Pierce actually would prefer a chance to win a title somewhere else. Loyalty aside, you only get so many chances to hoist that Larry O'Brien Trophy. If the Celtics hit rock bottom, I think they'd be doing Pierce a favor by trading him to a contender. Again, that's a slim-to-none chance in my mind, at least at the moment, but let's not act like the mere idea of trading the captain is preposterous in and of itself.

Q: Has the idea of letting the Big Three ride out this season (no matter how bad they are), then re-sign them as role players for next season (on top of adding high-level players via free agency) been talked about in the front office? -- Marc (Melrose, Mass.)

A: Absolutely. While we've all acknowledged that this is probably the last rodeo for the Big Three, it's been hinted that the Celtics could always bring back Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett at discount rates and still add a big-name free agent at the right price. In fact, if top-tier players such as Dwight Howard and Chris Paul are not available to Boston this summer, this scenario becomes even more likely as another potential one-year stopgap. It all comes down to what Allen and Garnett would be willing to play for and what they have in the tank. But it might beat the alternative of giving long-term, big-money contracts to free agents the team is lukewarm about.

Q: Given what they have received from him, do you think the Celtics regret spending the mini-midlevel exception on Chris Wilcox? -- Zain (Merced, Calif.)

A: Eleven points in seven games? Yeah, it's safe to say that's not the return they were looking for on their only real offseason free-agent investment (beyond minimum deals). We'll give Wilcox the early-season benefit of the doubt as he's battled shoulder and calf issues that have kept him out of nine games. That said, the Celtics clearly need more from him when he's back on the floor. He's offered virtually nothing offensively and, as one of the few legit big men on this team, he's got to get those rebounding numbers up. The Celtics need Wilcox to be a key reserve.

Q: Do you think the Celtics will pick anyone else up from the D-League this season? I'm just asking because Greg Stiemsma was one of their great additions. -- Paul (Blytheville, Ark.)

A: Stiemsma was a nice offseason addition and his size alone makes him valuable. But let's keep things in perspective. There's a reason this is Stiemsma's first true NBA opportunity. Right now, if he's not blocking shots, he's a bit of a defensive liability. According to Synergy Sports data, he's allowing 1.017 points per play (59 points in 58 possessions), which ranks in the eighth percentile (graded as "poor" by Synergy metrics). He's struggling defending in the post and stopping bigs on the pick-and-roll. I think the more time Stiemsma spends in Boston's system, the more he'll improve at that end of the court. He's simply having some typical young-player struggles, which is making it tough for Rivers to have the confidence to keep him on the floor.

Q: Any chance JaJuan Johnson gets some meaningful minutes? He's looked like a decent scoring threat from time to time and definitely has some great athleticism. -- Greg (Hamilton, N.Y.)

A: Obviously we've only seen small glimpses in what amounts to trash-time situations, but I like the potential of Johnson. That said, I think he's really got to work to increase his strength and sturdy his frame. Being around Kevin Garnett and all the veterans on this team every day will aid his basketball development, but I think the biggest thing for him is the physical progression. He's got everything else going for him -- his athleticism is off the charts and, away from the court, he's a delight to be around. You can tell he's really working hard and soaking it all in. Barring an injury to thin depth at the 4, I don't know how much we'll see of him this season, but he's got impact potential down the road.

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.