Sunday, May 5, 2013
Avery Bradley's sudden redemption
By Chris Forsberg ESPNBoston.com
In the final quarter of the Boston Celtics' season-ending Game 6 loss to the New York Knicks on Friday night at TD Garden, one improbable comeback came up short.
Another did not.
Boston, attempting to rally all the way back from a 3-0 series deficit and force a Game 7 in an Eastern Conference first-round series, trailed New York by as much as 26 with 9:49 to play on Friday night, and a furious final-frame rally couldn't prolong the Celtics' season.
But it was the play of third-year guard Avery Bradley during that feverish charge that provided maybe the biggest silver lining of the night for Boston. After a rather deplorable, confidence-shattering series, Bradley finished on an unexpected high note that restored some much-needed optimism about his play.
Avery Bradley ignited the Garden crowd with an inspired stretch that rallied the Celtics in Game 6.
While much of Boston's offseason focus will center on whether veterans like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce return (or how the Celtics will overhaul their roster if they don't), it's just as important to monitor whether members of the team's young nucleus -- like Bradley and Jeff Green -- are capable of entrenching themselves as potential building blocks for the next iteration.
For the first 236 minutes of the Knicks series, it looked like Bradley would need summer-long therapy sessions to rebuild his confidence. Entering the fourth quarter of Game 6, Bradley had shot 34.2 percent (13 of 38) and -- scoreless Friday to that point -- had mustered a mere 15 points since Game 1.
His offensive woes had trickled into the defensive end, where the typically smothering Bradley struggled to slow Raymond Felton (maybe the Knicks' MVP of the first round). In fact, Bradley looked like a liability at times in Game 6, and when Doc Rivers yanked him early in the third quarter, Bradley was minus-22 in a game Boston trailed by 17 to that point.
Then the unimaginable occurred.
After Boston fell behind by 26 (its largest deficit of the night), Rivers reinserted Bradley for Jason Terry with 9:43 to play. Bradley got a hand up as J.R. Smith missed a 3-pointer and, at the other end of the floor, he came off a high screen from Brandon Bass and knocked down a 23-foot straightway jumper. With that, it was like a great weight had finally been lifted.
Soon after, Bradley swiped a bad pass by Smith and went the other way for a layup. Next trip down, he assisted on a Pierce 3-pointer. A minute later, another steal led to two free throws. Bradley's outburst culminated with yet another steal -- this one a straight midcourt rip of Carmelo Anthony -- and a breakaway two-handed jam that trimmed New York's lead to four with 3:32 remaining.
Bradley's line over the final 9:43 featured 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting with three steals and one assist. He was plus-18 overall in that time.
Asked about his part in the rally, Bradley offered, "Leaving everything out on the floor. ... I know me, personally, that's what I wanted to do."
Bradley's late-game efforts were quickly overshadowed by the uncertainty of what lies ahead for Boston. For much of the first-round series -- one in which a longtime New York Daily News scribe took to calling him "Average" Bradley -- it was fair to wonder if Bradley could handle the playoff stage.
Bradley led the NBA during the regular season by allowing a measly 0.697 points per play (among those with at least 475 total defensive possessions), according to Synergy Sports data. That number leapt to 0.919 points per play in the postseason. His offensive numbers (0.727 points per play) might have been even more of an eyesore.
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Boston put Bradley in a rather impossible situation, asking him to direct the offense after Rajon Rondo was lost for the year due to a torn ACL in late January. The Knicks cranked the pressure on Bradley, sped his game up, and totally rattled him. Over the six-game series, Bradley had more turnovers (11) than assists (8) and coach Doc Rivers had to put more ball handlers on the floor late in the series while trying to defray some of the playmaking burden that clearly weighed Bradley down.
Bradley acknowledged his struggles and said this postseason was a learning experience for him. Instead of being an X factor, he was one of the weakest links on the team at times. The 22-year-old entered the postseason feeling like he owed his team something after shoulder injuries forced him out of the 2011-12 playoffs. Now Bradley must really feel like he owes his teammates.
He can find solace in the Game 6 burst that will help fuel his offseason.
"That run we made wasn't supposed to happen," said Bradley. "I think it will help us going forward."
Bradley is excited about the downtime and understandably so. For the first time as a pro, he's in line to get an uninterrupted summer to hone his game. That's something he hasn't had since high school.
Coming out of the University of Texas, Bradley chipped a bone in his ankle during a pre-draft workout for the Oklahoma City Thunder and underwent surgery shortly after being drafted 19th by the Celtics in 2010. He missed that entire summer and much of training camp, stunting his rookie-year development.
The NBA lockout messed with his 2011 summer and Bradley ultimately signed overseas with Hapoel Migdal Jerusalem, appearing in just two games before returning stateside. He had a breakout 2011-12 campaign, supplanting Ray Allen as the team's starting shooting guard by year's end.
But recurring shoulder woes ended his season in the midst of Boston's playoff run (the common refrain wonders if having Bradley on the floor could have swung the Heat series). Bradley ultimately underwent surgery on both shoulders and missed the first 30 games of the 2012-13 season while rehabbing.
At long last, Bradley is excited to have an honest-to-goodness NBA offseason to better his game. Sure, he's dinged up -- Kenyon Martin and Tyson Chandler tested the stability of his shoulders with every bone-crunching screen that freed Felton -- but Bradley is salivating at the opportunity to use the next five months to better himself.
Now, if he could only find some willing workout partners.
"Nobody likes to work out with me, because I work so hard in the offseason, honestly," said Bradley.
Wait, because he can't downshift his defensive intensity, even in the summer?
"No, I just go hard, like three-a-days, sometimes four-a-days," said Bradley. "Most people know how hard I work out during the offseason. There's a reason why I go so hard all the time."
It's because he doesn't want to endure another postseason like the one he had. Bradley knows he can be better and Boston absolutely needs him to be better in order to succeed moving forward, regardless of how the rest of the roster looks.
The Celtics need the Avery Bradley who made a 10-minute cameo at the end of Game 6.