Avery Bradley will live up to the hype

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Avery Bradley will live up to the hype

One of my favorite things about the New Year is that we all get a much-needed break from lists. From the "Best of" and "Worst of" everything, and the entire Internet cramming a years worth of material into a weeklong string of slide shows.

Although, these days I guess its always slide show season. Theres never a bad time to slap together a list. As we speak, interns everywhere are already hard at work on "The Best Sports Moments in Martin Luther King Day History." Its going to be awesome! But in the meantime, I want to take one more second to quickly reflect on last year. On, without question, one of the most surprising and essential developments of 2012 (at least as far as Boston sports), and one that didnt receive all that much attention during last weeks Year in Review Listravanganza.

The emergence of Avery Bradley.

Its easy to misremember now, but this time last year, Avery Bradley was a bust. He was considered another Danny Ainge swing and miss. Another draft pick that Celtics fans could look back on and say, Yup. They blew it. No wonder this team is screwed.

He was J.R. Giddens.

But today, Bradley is Joe Dumars. AVERY BRADLEY IS A GOD. Hes . . . OK, Im probably understating things a little. But my point is that no one saw this coming no one (at least on the outside) imagined that Bradley would improve as much and as quickly as he did. And over these last two months, weve gotten a glimpse at just how screwed the Celtics would have been if Bradley had continued along the path to one day co-starring with Giddens in Poland.

So what happened? How did we get here? Eh, thats not nearly as important as the fact that we are here. That tonight at the Garden, Bradley rejoins the Celtics line-up for the first time in more than seven months the first time since Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Philly and has an opportunity to jump start the season; to rescue Boston from the depths of lottery hell and restore the belief that theyre worthy of an eventual rematch with the Heat.

And you know what? I think he's going to do it.

I think that three months from now, we'll look back at tonight's game as the turning point in the Celtics season. As the moment everything started to make sense. Ironically (I think?), I also imagine the Celtics will lose tonight. Certainly if Rondo sits. But that's OK, because Bradley still needs time. No one expects him to take the court against the Grizzlies and pick up right where he left off as one of the most instrumental and perfectly complimentary shooting guards in the entire league.

I'm sure some people will find that last part ridiculous, but those people forget how effective Bradley was down the stretch last season. That over 15 games in April (after officially reclaiming the starting two spot), Bradley averaged 15.1 points a night, shot .520 from the field and .545 from three point land. That more often than not, he was and will continue to be the most dominant defensive player on the floor. That he's egoless, a guy who doesn't need plays run for him, and LOVES moving without the ball. That last season, the Celtics were 20-8 in games started by Bradley and 19-19 when he came off the bench. That even in the playoffs, as Bradley played through two bad shoulders, the Celtics offensive rating was 105.9 with AB on the court and 98.8 with him on the bench. That their defensive rating 90.2 with him on the court and 103.1 with him on the bench. That, bottom line: He makes the Celtics a better team.

He will make the Celtics a better team.

But like I said, we can't expect too much right away. The truth is that Bradley's return to court is not the final step in his recovery from shoulder surgery. It's an essential and incredibly uplifting shift in the right direction, but it's not the end of the road. It will take some time for him to get back in the flow, and grow accustomed to his new teammates. In turn, it will take the Celtics a little time to readjust to having him back in the flow.

But it won't be long until his impact his clear, and the Celtics are far better for his presence. The Celtics as a team, obviously. But also as individuals.

With Bradley, Rondo gets a much-needed break on man-to-man defense, and can focus on what he does best reeking havoc in the passing lanes. Rondo will also (finally) have someone in the starting five who's younger than 35, can get out on the break, and doesn't privately wince before deferring to his authority. On that note, I'm really interested to see what Rondo, Bradley and Jeff Green might do together. If Jeff is willing to run, that group can do some damage.

Then there's KG, who will most definitely benefit from Bradley's presence on defense. Sure, the big guy will still be the glue and the last line of defense, but with Bradley, the Celtics won't have to count on the last line as much as they do now. And on offense, have you noticed that KG's assists are down this year? It hasn't been a monumental drop, but Garnett's 2.7 assists per 36 minutes is his lowest average since his rookie year. And while some of that is surely a result of Doc brainwashing Garnett to shoot more, I think it also stems from guys not cutting to the basket. That when he has the ball in the post, there's often no other option BUT to shoot. Bradley will change that. The entire offense will flow better with his movement. And expect those KG assists to bump up.

And what about Jason Terry? He's been an enormous disappointed over his first two months in Boston, but with Bradley back, he can finally return to the bench, to the sixth man role that the Celtics hired him to fill and that Terry's spent the last four years perfecting.

All in all, I know that there are a lot of people out there trying to warn the masses about putting too much emphasis on Avery Bradley's return. People who don't think there's anyway he can help that much. That the Celtics are in trouble, either way.

But I'm just not one of them.

I'm on the Bradley bandwagon.

In fact, his return is already No. 1 on my list of the most exciting things to happen during the first week of 2013.

The complete slideshow will be posted on Friday.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

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Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

Avery Bradley was a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive first team a year ago. And Al Horford has been among the league’s best interior defenders for a number of years.

But as talented defensively as they may be, the Celtics are still learning how to play with each other as well as off of one another.

Injuries have slowed down the chemistry developing as quickly as some might expect. Horford missed nine games due to a concussion, and another game due to wife giving birth to their second child, Alia Horford.

And in Boston’s 107-106 win over Philadelphia on Saturday night, defensive chemistry -- not only among Horford and Bradley, but with all of the players -- remains a work in progress for sure.

Boston had a number of defensive issues in the first half which factored in the Sixer shooting 46.1 percent from the field while shooting 9-for-18 from 3-point range.

But the second half was an entirely different story as Boston’s defense picked up his intensity and focus level which would prove to be just enough to beat a scrappy Sixers team.

The Celtics (12-8) are four games over .500 for the first time this season currently have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference behind Cleveland (13-5) and Toronto (14-6). 

And while the players point to a handful of games that they felt they gave away, Avery Bradley reminds all that the success of this team this season has for the most part come with key players out of the mix or limited in some capacity.

“We haven’t played that many games with the full roster,” Bradley told reporters after the win. “We’re still learning how to play with each other.”

Bradley pointed out a moment in Saturday’s victory where a miscommunication between him and Horford led to a defensive miscue.

Boston has had similar mistakes made on offense this season, too.

“We haven’t really been in pick-and-roll that much,” Bradley said. “Every single game we need to improve.”

And that improvement has to continue evolving on the defensive side of things for this team to achieve its goals this season which include being among the last teams standing in the East.

Doing that will likely mean Boston re-establishing itself as a defensive force, something that should come with time and experience playing with each other.

Horford, who signed a four-year, $113 million deal with Boston in the offseason, says it’s an ongoing process for all involved.

“I have to learn to play with our concepts, the guys have to learn to play with me,” Horford told reporters after Saturday’s win. “We just have to make sure we keep playing the right way, be more consistent with that. I feel like we’re getting better but there’s still some work that we need to do.”

Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

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Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

The pressure that comes with a tight game in the fourth quarter can be a weighty proposition for some NBA players.

Then there’s Boston’s Isaiah Thomas who continues to save his best work for the fourth quarter.

Saturday’s 107-106 win at Philadelphia had yet another Thomas-like finish for the Celtics as the 5-foot-9 guard was at his most dominant state in the game’s final minutes.

Thomas finished with a season high-tying 37 points which included a stretch in the fourth in which he scored 12 straight.

“I just love the fourth quarter,” Thomas told reporters following the win. “I just want to win. Whether it’s making plays for myself or making plays for my teammates, it’s about making the right play. I get ultra- aggressive in that fourth quarter. That’s what I’ve always done.”

And his teammates appreciate how Thomas elevates his play in the game’s most pivotal moments.

“A lot of the credit is to Isaiah, how he was able to finish the game tonight,” said Avery Bradley. “He was able to make shots when we needed him to.”

And while Thomas knows his shots won’t fall all the time down the stretch, his fourth quarter mentality does provide him with a level of confidence that no matter what the defense does to him or what the score may be, he can swing the game’s momentum in his team’s favor.

“Some guys get a little tight, they get a little timid (in the fourth quarter),” Thomas said. “I embrace it. I want to be great. I want to be somebody my teammates can call on when the game is close.”

Here are the Stars, Studs and Duds from Saturday night’s game.

STARS

Isaiah Thomas: There was no more dominant player on Saturday night than Thomas. He finished with a game-high 37 points along with seven assists.

Dario Saric: It was a breakout game for the 22-year-old rookie who led the Sixers with 21 points as well as 12 rebounds for his third double-double this season. Both his points and rebound totals tied his career highs in those categories.

STUDS

Avery Bradley: Boston’s surge towards victory did not kick in until the third quarter which is when Bradley elevated his play offensively. In the third he scored 10 of his 20 points on the night, to go along with a team-high nine rebounds.

Ersan Illyasova: He finished with 18 points which included a pair of three-pointers in the closing seconds of the game. He also grabbed six rebounds and two assists.

DUDS

Celtics first half defense: There wasn’t much to like about Boston defensively in the first half. The Celtics struggled to take away or limit Philadelphia’s only strength Saturday night which was three-point shooting. The Sixers nailed nine of their 18 three-point attempts in the first half in addition to hurting the Celtics’ transition defense which gave up seven fast-break points to Philly compared to Boston scoring just one point in transition.