Meet the Boston Celtics' Unheralded Savior

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Meet the Boston Celtics' Unheralded Savior
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Against the Miami Heat, Avery Bradley had a rough night on paper.

But Bradley's game is not played on paper.

That's why his 3-of-11, seven-point, four-turnover performance recently against the Heat isn't alarming at all. Bradley's duty in that game wasn't to score big or rack up a bunch of assists. His role was to set a tone defensively, for his teammates to follow.

With Kevin Garnett sidelined due to an illness, this could've been an easy game for Miami's offense to take over. Common knowledge still rested on Garnett being the defensive backbone and motor for the Boston Celtics. With little fanfare, however, that role has begun to slide in the direction of Boston's 22-year-old guard.

His tone-setting play came in the second quarter when he tracked down a Norris Cole break-away for a block. As Cole drove to the rim uncontested, Bradley sprinted after him, swatting the ball out of his hands a split-second before the dunk.

The tone was set, as Courtney Lee grabbed the loose ball and fired it to Paul Pierce at the other end for a three. Though the Celtics went on to lose the game, 105-103, Bradley's defense is what gave the Celtics confidence to lead for much of the night. Without Garnett or Rajon Rondo, there is little other explanation for how the Celtics kept pace with Miami throughout.

It has become virtually impossible to have a good shooting night against Bradley. Opposing guards have been quieted or shut down entirely, no matter what their stature in the league is. Dwyane Wade was no different Monday night. Miami's superstar was held to just 16 points on 46.7 percent shooting, both well below his season averages.

Earlier in March, Stephen Curry was about as hot as you could get, coming off his 54-point game against the New York Knicks. He and Avery Bradley clashed in a memorable matchup that left Curry 6-of-22 from the field. The next night, the Golden State Warrior was 11-of-20 for another 30 points. Bradley was the cause of the lone hiccup in an impressive string of scoring from Curry.

He has done the same thing over and over again. Damian Lillard, the rookie phenom from the Portland Trailblazers, went 5-of-16 for 12 points. The always dangerous Russell Westbrook was held to 15 points and two assists. 

Bradley harassed the Toronto Raptors' Sebastian Telfair so badly that Telfair got himself ejected in the third quarter out of frustration. 

He has that ability that Garnett also possesses. He can get under his opponent's skin, though he doesn't do it by talking. You'll rarely see Bradley whooping it up after a big play or talking smack to a player bringing the ball up. His eyes just stay straight ahead and focused, with his mouth shut.

It speaks to a respect and attitude that go beyond Bradley's 22 years of age. There is an understanding in him that he isn't there yet. He hasn't earned anything at the NBA level. He has only 130 professional games and 63 starts to his name.

Bradley has spent much of his first three NBA seasons on the injured list or in the D-League. However, in 35 games this season, he has transformed the Celtics defensively, keeping them at the elite level they've played at in years past. His presence on the floor is starting to render Garnett's cut minutes less noticeable.

The Celtics were a 14-16 disappointment with Bradley on the sidelines recovering from two shoulder surgeries. His return sparked a six-game winning streak, almost on reputation alone. It was like the Celtics team had new life in it when it saw him out there. He played only 25 minutes a game in January, but the change was noticeable.

By the time he was fully healthy and saw a usage increase in February and March, Bradley was a true difference-maker. It was no longer good vibes and reputation that the Celtics were running on. Bradley's grit and dominating quickness spread through the roster like wildfire. 

With Rajon Rondo going down for the season, Courtney Lee, Jason Terry and Jeff Green started taking their cues from Bradley, which led to a defense-first mindset.

Without Bradley, through their first 30 games, Boston allowed its opposition to score at least 100 points 14 times. In the 36 games since Bradley's return, only nine teams have breached triple-digits on the Celtics defense. Boston has also won five of those nine games.

The obvious numbers are 14-17 without, and 22-13 with. Boston has returned to its rightful place as one of the league's premier defensive teams. It's allowing 95.8 points per game on 43.8 percent shooting.

Most of Avery Bradley's effectiveness still has to come from the tone-setting defense. Offensively, he is not yet effective or efficient enough to have a regular impact on games. 

Bradley has to make it so he is a nightly threat to score in double figures. Right now he is shooting just 41.5 percent from the field. One improvement he has made is on corner threes. They are becoming somewhat of a go-to shot for him. He is 53 percent from beyond the arc in March, but still attempting just two per night.

Per Synergy Sports, Bradley is allowing just .69 points per possession, with opponents shooting merely 30.5 percent against him. Those numbers rank him No. 11 in terms of individual defense.

Bradley is able to put multiple offensive players in bad position on a single possession. He not only is wearing out opposing guards by sticking to them bringing the ball up and on the perimeter, he is also destroying the stamina of opposing bigs. 

Often when Bradley is in the backcourt pressuring a ball-handler, a center or forward will have to jog back to set a pick, even before the ball has crossed half court. Now two players are out of position and have had to work twice as hard to get into an offensive set. That offensive set is also not starting until deep in the shot clock. 

Bradley's pressure is more than just aggravating for point guards to deal with. It has a ripple effect for the rest of the possession and allows the Celtics to gain a defensive advantage. The offense has less time and energy to get off a good play and quality shot. 

Stat sheets for Avery Bradley won't be pretty this season, or maybe ever. Don't mistake that with ineffectiveness, though. Bradley has played a major role in saving the season for the Boston Celtics. 

Their success starts with his pressure now, and good luck slipping a stat sheet between him and his defensive assignment. 

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