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After undergoing surgery on both shoulders last May, guard Avery Bradley returned to the Celtics’ lineup this month, and his presence has had an immediate impact on the team. After losing their first game of 2013 to Memphis, the C’s reeled off six consecutive wins before that streak came to an end Wednesday against the Hornets. Boston, which had fallen well below .500 and out of playoff position at the end of December, is now at 20-18 and just 4.5 games behind New York in the Atlantic Division.
While Bradley’s recovery isn’t the only reason for the Celtics’ improved play, there is no denying that he has had a revitalizing effect on his teammates, who went 1-8 on the road in December. With Bradley, the C’s beat both the Hawks and the Knicks on the road, and are poised to continue their recent successful run as their next two away games will see them facing lowly Detroit and Cleveland.
Above all, Bradley is known as a lockdown defender, a reputation he earned last season, as he replaced an ailing Ray Allen in the starting lineup at the end of the regular season and during the Celtics’ subsequent playoff run. True to form, his impact on the defensive end has been remarkable, as the numbers show. The Celtics, long one of the NBA’s premier defensive teams, gave up at least 100 points in 14 of their 30 games without Bradley, including the last three December losses in California. Since then, they haven’t allowed any of the eight teams they’ve faced with Bradley in the lineup to score more than 96.
Bradley is averaging 1.5 rebounds, 1.2 steals and .5 block per game, and is having the more intangible effect of providing his teammates with the kind of contagious defensive intensity that no other backcourt player brings. In that regard, Bradley has the potential to evolve into the type of defensive leader that Kevin Garnett has been during his five seasons in green, by transcending the stat sheet and energizing his entire team.
Boston’s offensive output has also improved since Bradley’s return. The Celtics already have as many 100-point games in January (3), as they did in the entire month of December, when they failed to score even 90 points in six of 14 games. Bradley is averaging 23.5 minutes per game, up from 21.4 last year, when he was mostly a bench player until the final stretch of the regular season. While his shooting has been inconsistent (he’s at 40.6% from the floor and just 28.6% from beyond the arc), he’s raised his scoring average to 8.1 points per game, with a high of 16 in Monday’s win over Charlotte, where he was 4-for-7 from three-point territory.
No doubt Bradley is far from an elite offensive player, but he has already proved that he can be a perfectly serviceable NBA shooting guard. Considering that he’s only in his third year, it is reasonable to expect his shot selection, and with it his shooting percentage, to improve as his career progresses. It’s also worth remembering that he’s been away from the game for more than seven months and hasn’t even played ten games this year, so his productivity thus far is that much more remarkable.
Perhaps the most positive effect of Bradley’s return has been on the backcourt rotation. Coach Doc Rivers inserted him directly into the starting lineup alongside Rajon Rondo, as had been his plan all along. This allowed Courtney Lee and Jason Terry, who had been alternating as starters, to move to the bench, where Lee, in particular, has flourished. Lee has seen his efficiency rise as his minutes have decreased, especially on defense. For the first time this season, the second unit has been able to consistently maintain and even widen leads while the starters take a break.