Avery Bradley dribbled between his legs, crossed over in front of his body and burst to his left down the lane, tapping in a layup. The Nets, who trailed by 21 points, looked like they had been hit in the gut.
Bradley's highlight-reel offensive play in the fourth quarter on Wednesday was a nice moment for the Celtics in their 89-70 victory, but it was two defensive plays that earned the second-year guard out of Texas more playing time and possibly a bigger role in the game plan moving forward. In Rajon Rondo, Boston already has a super-quick point guard with a sick handle who can get to the rim. What they need — and what Bradley can do that is unique to this roster — is someone to provide shutdown defense on the perimeter.
For all the anticipation plays Rondo makes on defense that turn into steals or his occasionally motivated possessions where he looks like a modern Joe Dumars, Rondo is still not a consistent ball-stopper. Shooting guard Ray Allen is more crafty than sturdy. Backup Keyon Dooling is relentless but slight. Marquis Daniels is too invaluable against bigger wings to spare many minutes defending fancy dribblers.
The backcourt's defensive shortcomings have contributed to the Celtics' foul troubles in the post this season. Jermaine O'Neal and Greg Stiemsma have committed at least three personal fouls each in every game in which they've played 10 minutes or more. Their timing and positioning plays a part, but the sheer volume of ballhandlers barreling down the lane hasn't helped.
Until Wednesday, Bradley looked like a potential solution to that problem, but he had yet to receive enough extended playing time to tell for sure. It's not really difficult to play tough defense in four-minute bursts, but there's understandable uncertainty as to how he'd handle, say, 23:27 of action.
That uncertainty made progress toward being dispelled with those two previously mentioned plays against the Nets. One play was made with strength while the other was made with footwork.
Early in the second quarter, 6-foot-5, 210-pound veteran DeShawn Stevenson got the ball on the elbow against Bradley and pivoted, using his rear end to try to muscle the 6-2, 180-pound Bradley toward the hoop. Bradley dug in against the larger player and forced Stevenson to take an awkward fall-away jumper that didn't even catch iron.
Much later, with under two minutes to play in the third quarter, Bradley harassed Jordan Farmar beyond the 3-point arc into retreating, retreating and retreating until there was nowhere to retreat. Farmar was forced to make a desperate pass, which Bradley deflected off Farmar and out of bounds. By that time, Bradley was well into double-digits in minutes and on his way to scoring 11 points, yet the 21-year-old had shown no slowdown in his defensive game.
Boston still had its troubles defending the Nets' quick guards. Undrafted journeyman Sundiata Gaines, who last season averaged just one shot per game at the rim and who shot less than 17 percent on short jumpers from three to nine feet, lit up the Celtics for six third-quarter points and got to the hoop to set up baskets by journeyman forward Shelden Williams on back-to-back possessions in the second quarter.
(Any time the word "journeyman" is mentioned twice in the same paragraph as the word troubles, yeah, there should be at least a little concern.)
Bradley helped slow down the drives of Gaines, MarShon Brooks and Farmar, which may come in handy later in the season when the Celtics need to rest Rondo but still need a body to put on the opponent's top guards.
By scoring 55 points in the second half without Allen on Wednesday, the Celtics provided more evidence that offense will not be what holds them back in 2012. A high-scoring, athletic guard like Derrick Rose will give them fits, however, and while Bradley by himself will never stifle the reigning MVP, at least he's a start.