Bradley, Stiemsma break through on veteran Celtics team

748105.jpg

Bradley, Stiemsma break through on veteran Celtics team

ATLANTA Avery Bradley left the University of Texas after just one season, was a first-round pick by the Boston Celtics in 2010 but did very little as a rookie.

Greg Stiemsma, a 7-footer with a nondescript career in both college and overseas, was a last-minute invite to the C's training camp whose primary job was to give the Celtics another warm body to take some of the wear and tear off of their veteran big men.

As you glance back at the Boston Celtics roster at the beginning of training camp, few would have envisioned that these two players would have made a major impact on the C's this season.

Bradley has gone from a first round bust-in-the-making, to one of the NBA's breakout stars this season making the kind of strides that seem to be growing exponentially at both ends of the floor.

Stiemsma, a long shot just to even make the Celtics 15-man roster, has blossomed into one of the NBA's better shot-blockers and is now the C's first big man off the bench.

"It's been a crazy ride," Stiemsma told CSNNE.com. "I don't know if it'll set in until it's over. So I'm trying to make it last for as long as I can."

So are the Celtics, whose postseason begins on the road Sunday in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks.

For the Celtics to have the kind of deep playoff run they're hoping for, it'll require the contributions of many - Bradley and Stiemsma included.

The fact that both have come so far so quickly is shocking.

To do so for the Celtics, a team that has not relied much on young talent during the Big Three era, makes it even more amazing.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers attributes the success of the team's young players this season to their willingness and desire to improve.

"We're patient with young guys, as long as young guys want to be taught," Rivers said. "It took me about a year of coaching to realize potential with character turns out to be good player. Potential with no character turn out to be the guy that keeps being traded. You get impatient with that, where you try to get a guy to be a better player, and they can't get out of themselves; they're so much into themselves, they're unteachable."

Bradley's numbers are significantly better in just about every statistical category of note from his rookie season until now.

A 1.7 points per game scorer as a rookie, he's averaging 7.6 per game now. A lot of that has to do with him playing 21.4 minutes per game this season - that's more than four times his minutes per game average as a rookie.

"He got his opportunity to play this year, and like all players who put in the kind of work he does and care about the game the way he does, it's paying off for him," C's guard Keyon Dooling told CSNNE.com. "I've said this many times before. He is the NBA's best on-the-ball-defender right now. And with his offensive game starting to take shape, the sky's the limit for this kid; it really is."

But he credits getting a confidence boost from the C's veterans as being instrumental in his development, too.

"My teammates have a lot to do with me getting better," Bradley told CSNNE.com. "They're always in my ear, encouraging me, giving me more confidence to go out and play, help us win games. I'm going to always grind, regardless. But having teammates who are also pushing you to do better, pulling for you, it makes you feel good; it makes you want to go out and play even harder because you know they got your back."

Stiemsma echoed Bradley's sentiments.

"It definitely helps, makes you feel good when you know guys like KG (Kevin Garnett), are pulling for you, trying to help you become a better player," Stiemsma said. "You push yourself that much harder to play well and help the team win."

While there were several moments throughout the season in which their play stood out, the origins of their success can be traced back to where all seasons usually begin training camp.

Avery Bradley's outlook for his second season was significantly different. First and foremost, he was healthy. And maybe just as important, he spent some time during the summer with Doc Rivers, trying to establish a stronger bond which he felt wasn't where he wanted to be, during his rookie year.

Bradley's plan was pretty simple.

The more time he spent around Rivers, the better they would get to know each other. And that maybe, just maybe, could pay off with Rivers having more trust in him this season.

"I don't know how much that helped my chances of playing, but I know it didn't hurt," Bradley said.

Gaining Rivers' trust was one thing. Getting the trust of his teammates?

Much tougher.

They already respected him as a good on-the-ball-defender, but there were a lot of questions about whether he could ever develop into a decent scorer.

Rivers had been saying from Day One that Bradley was a scorer; not a shooter, but a scorer.

But heading into camp and shortly after, Rivers' words were just that - words.

It wasn't until Bradley started to play decent minutes - first filing in for an injured Rajon Rondo, and later as a fill-in and eventual replacement for Ray Allen - did he begin to display the kind of all-around game that the Celtics envisioned when they selected the 6-2 guard with the No. 19 pick in the 2010 NBA draft.

"The kid has worked his behind off to get where he's at, and I'm happy for him," said Garnett, referring to Bradley. "I hope at the end of the year they (Celtics) take care of him, along with Steamboat (Stiemsma) and some other guys because they've earned it. You see these guys come in and put in their work young guys don't even grind like this. They don't even come in and work like this. It's good to see; it's refreshing, to be honest."

Stiemsma's emergence was even more unexpected - and needed - than Bradley.

As one of the last players invited to training camp, the chances of him making the Celtics roster didn't look good.

Boston had Jermaine O'Neal starting at center, with Chris Wilcox as his backup. The plan was to at times throw Kevin Garnett in the mix at center as well.

Then came multiple injuries that limited O'Neal and Wilcox, which afforded Stiemsma an opportunity to play.

Did he ever.

In his first NBA game at New Orleans in December, he swatted six shots - a franchise record for a rookie in his first game.

That was just the beginning, as Stiemsma continued to showcase an uncanny knack for rejecting shots at a rate unlike anything the C's have seen recently. Stiemsma led the Celtics in total blocks (85) and blocks per game (1.55) despite playing in 55 games with just three starts.

His 1.55 blocks per game ranked second among rookies, and 14th overall in the NBA this past season.

Celtics great and Comcast SportsNet analyst Tommy Heinsohn said Stiemsma's timing on blocking shots was reminiscent to one of Heinsohn's former teammates, Bill Russell.

Such praise only increased as Stiemsma's status with the Celtics continued to grow by leaps and bounds - along with a slew of nicknames such as Steemer and Steamroller.

"He's the Steamroller," said Boston's Paul Pierce. "You bring it into the lane, and he's going to steamroll you."

One of Stiemsma's biggest influences has been Garnett, who was among the first to sing his praises well before he became a player that teams had to account for on the scouting report.

He came from the bottom, came from nothing, very appreciative of his opportunity, Garnett said. He comes in and works his ass off. Im not just saying that. He comes in and works his ass off, a true professional. Youre just happy to see a guy get an opportunity like that and more importantly take advantage of it.

And like Bradley, all the individual success has brought him to this point where the C's are in the playoffs with both being counted on to be significant contributors.

Bradley will be part of the bevy of Celtics defenders who will spend time guarding Joe Johnson. Stiemsma will be expected to continue doing a solid job on the boards, in addition to patrolling the paint either as a shot-blocker or having a presence that makes the Hawks think twice about trying to score in the lane.

It has been quite a journey for these two, a journey that neither wants to see end anytime soon.

Chris Mannix: 'Great chance' Celtics capture No. 1 seed

boston-celtics-lebron-james-cleveland-cavaliers-42415.jpg

Chris Mannix: 'Great chance' Celtics capture No. 1 seed

Chris Mannix discusses the Boston Celtics chances of sealing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and which low-seed team will give them the most problems in the playoffs.

Kelly Olynyk's 3-point game is helping him produce all over floor

Kelly Olynyk's 3-point game is helping him produce all over floor

WALTHAM -- Kelly Olynyk is in a good place right now. 

He’s playing a key role on one of the top teams in the NBA, doing more than just stretch the floor with long-range jumpers and 3-pointers. He has been a solid positional defender most of his time in the NBA, but lately he has become one of the team’s best rebounders … really!

But more than anything, Olynyk is in the best shape of his career both mentally and physically, delivering strong play in several categories.

“When he plays aggressive and with confidence, that’s when he’s at his best,” said Boston’s Isaiah Thomas. 

And lately, the best of Olynyk has been in steady rotation for the Celtics who will host the Phoenix Suns tonight. 

Olynyk attributes his recent strong play to seizing his opportunity to help the Celtics in what has been a season-long area of weakness. The fourth-year big man is a threat to score from 3-point range whenever he’s on the floor. Because of that, teams are overly concerned about his long-range shooting which has allowed him to be an effective driver into the paint and finisher around the rim. 

He has also benefited by being healthy, something he could not say was the case on the eve of the Celtics’ postseason run last season which ended in the second round to the Atlanta Hawks. Olynyk was hampered by a sore right shoulder injury that limited him in the playoffs against Atlanta, and later required surgery which sidelined him for the start of this season. 

But those pain-filled days where he gave more thought to his shoulder rather than shouldering a greater load for the Celtics, are behind him now. 

“It’s something that I had to deal with and I had to get surgery,” Olynyk said. “Now it feels better than it has. I feel strong, confident, ready to roll.”

Boston has won five of its last six games, and the play of Olynyk off the bench has been among the reasons for the team’s latest run of success. In those six games, Olynyk has averaged 10.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists while shooting a team-high 64.9 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from 3-point range in 20.5 minutes per game – all better than his season average in those respective categories. 

And among Celtics players who have averaged double-digit minutes in that span, Olynyk has a team-best rebounding percentage of .170 in addition to an effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%) of .689 which is also tops among Boston players during their last six games.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens isn’t surprised to see Olynyk playing as well as he has now that he’s injury-free.

“I don’t think there’s anything more important than playing with clear minds and fresh legs,” Stevens said. “I just think that, and not being injured is a big part of that.”

For Olynyk, part of the challenge he has had since coming to the NBA was finding that balance between being aggressive and assertive, while making sure he got teammates involved when the opportunity presents itself.

“There’s definitely a fine line between being aggressive, forcing things, over-aggressive and create and open things up for others,” Olynyk said. “It’s kind of a balance, kind of like a yin and yang; just go out and play basketball the way you know how to play it. That’s what’s going to make you the best version of yourself and your team the best version they can be.”

Olynyk’s teammates encourage him often (Avery Bradley and Thomas are probably the two most consistent in his ear) to be more assertive, but they recognize he tends to be hesitant far too often for a player with his skillset.

“When he’s second-guessing and … shot-faking when he should have shot, just not being the aggressive player that we need him to be … we don’t need him to be like that,” said Thomas. “We believe in him. He just has to remain confident at all times. When he’s confident and aggressive, he’s a hell of a player.”