Since Avery Bradley made his season debut six games ago, the Boston Celtics have gone 5-1, completely turning their season around and effectively pulling the plug on desperate trade rumors for the likes of DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay.
In those six games, the Celtics have the second-best defense in basketball—allowing 93.6 points per 100 possessions—and the third-best point differential (9.9 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents). The Celtics have forced 16.8 turnovers per 48 minutes and are holding opponents to a pedestrian 40.5 percent shooting from the field. Both lead the league.
Boston has also reached above-average levels on opposing field-goal attempts in the restricted area per game, which was a major weakness for the team earlier this season. On offense, they've boosted their production to league-average levels, which is where they need to be in order to once again compete for an NBA championship.
Is this all a coincidence, and we're reading too much into the return of one player in an incredibly small sample size? Couldn't the explanation be a simple regression back to the mean for a team that entered the season with high expectations?
Or is Bradley—a defensive demon unlike any we've seen since hand-checking was outlawed in 1994—really this significant?
Offensively, his individual numbers are nothing to write home about. He's shooting 36.4 percent from the floor and 21.1 percent from behind the three-point line. But his shot will come around, and he’s attempting them in the right areas.
Bradley is averaging 2.3 attempts from the corner per game, good for fourth in the entire league. Obviously, that sample size is too small to legitimately compare it to the likes of Danny Green and Shane Battier, who’ve been doing it all season, but it’s definitely a hopeful sign (even though he’s only converting 28.6 percent of them).
Here, he is immediately running to his spot, forcing a thin Knicks transition defense to pick its poison.
There have been encouraging signs elsewhere. Most notably, the infamous “Honey Nut Cheerios Bowl” in Madison Square Garden, where Bradley scored 13 points on 55 percent shooting (also recording five assists, which, despite coming on basic set-up passes and a Jeff Green step-back jumper, weren’t a bad thing). Also, he has just four turnovers in six games.
While Bradley’s return shouldn't get credit for the rise of Jared Sullinger as a Rookie of the Year candidate, or Jeff Green’s sudden transformation into dominant second-unit scorer, it should get proper due for the confident, improved play of Courtney Lee.
Lee was yanked and jerked around the rotation by Doc Rivers as he searched for a solution to his team's problems. It prevented Lee from comfortably finding his role, playing hesitant, uncertain basketball. He has eight steals in the past six games and scored 13 points against Indiana’s top defense and 14 against Houston, his former squad.
Defensively, Bradley’s game has been there, to say the least. The first victim was Mike Conley, who admitted after the game that he was thankful whenever Bradley was sent to the bench. Elsewhere, we’ve seen him on notable names like James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Jeff Teague, J.R. Smith and the poor Jason Kidd/Pablo Prigioni duo. (One of the biggest reasons New York couldn’t defeat a Celtics team that was lacking Rajon Rondo was the constant full-court ball pressure by Bradley, who single-handedly made New York’s offense as uncomfortable as they’ve been all season.)
Here's are two examples, the first against New York and the second against Atlanta.
First he destroys Kidd, forcing a turnover with perfect on-ball defense. Then he picks up Teague at half court, forcing a discombobulated offensive possession for the Hawks that results in an awkward running jumper. It's defensive pressure like this that cuts off the opposing offense's head.
While it might not be fair to say Bradley's return is the entire reason Boston's suddenly changed its tune as a contending team, he's definitely played a major part. And moving forward, there's no reason to believe the Celtics won't continue to improve from the position that they're currently at.
He may be 22 years old, but Bradley is an important basketball player.