Avery Bradley did his best impression of a natural point guard for more than 36 minutes on Wednesday. He brought the ball up the court, got the Celtics into their offense and then got out of the way for Paul Pierce to take care of distributing the basketball.
Most importantly for the Celtics, Bradley protected the ball, entering the final 30 seconds against the Magic with only three turnovers. At the most crucial time, though, he attempted a difficult pass to Kevin Garnett at the top of the key, allowing Glen Davis to get his hand in for a steal and a dunk that pulled the Magic within two points.
After Pierce bailed out the Celtics with a clutch jump shot and two game-sealing free throws, the attention turned to Boston's backcourt. Bradley's late turnover stood out because it was one of the few miscues made by the Celtics' role-playing guards and wings, who provided more than 109 cumulative minutes of solid production in the win over Orlando.
Bradley, Keyon Dooling, Sasha Pavlovic, Marquis Daniels and E'Twaun Moore all contributed in some form or another, as they have since mid-February whenever they have been thrust into duty.
"I think one of our strengths is that we have a lot of depth," Dooling said. "We have a lot of professionals on our team who are always ready to step up. Offensively, we didn't really ignite the game, but defensively I think we did a great job."
Dooling's night was indicative of the unit as a whole. He scored only three points in 23 minutes, but Celtics coach Doc Rivers called him "as disruptive defensively as Avery" on Wednesday. Moore was not nearly as hot from the field as he was Jan. 26, when he scored a career-high 16 points against these Magic, but he chipped in five points in 13 minutes. Daniels expended some pent-up energy with four points, two rebounds, two assists and a steal in an industrious 13 minutes of his own.
Bradley, of course, only continues to get better. He scored 23 points and pressured the opposing point guard defensively — as usual — although he had trouble with Orlando's Jameer Nelson, who has improved dramatically since the All-Star break.
"To me, they just understand their roles," Rivers said. "It's funny how this team doesn't let egos get in the way of playing solid basketball, and that's what makes them so unique and able to play through no [Mickael] Pietrus, no Ray [Allen]. They just don't even think about it. It's just a good group."
Led by Bradley, their arrival comes at a fortunate time for the Celtics, who are dealing with injuries to three key members of their backcourt rotation in Rajon Rondo, Allen and Pietrus. Rondo is not expected to miss more than two games after falling hard on his back Tuesday in New York, but Allen's swollen right ankle is becoming a concern, Rivers acknowledged.
"That's becoming, obviously, troublesome for us," Rivers said. "I don't think he'll play Friday, we've already pretty much determined that as well. After that we have three or four days, so maybe by the Miami game we can get him back."
Pietrus' absence was just as unexpected, as the outgoing swingman from Guadeloupe was thought to be beyond his health issues after he returned from a concussion. The timing of Pietrus' return could not have been worse, coming right before the Celtics played three road games in three nights. The increased wear after so long on the sideline caused Pietrus to suffer a flare up in his right knee, which underwent arthroscopic surgery during the offseason.
"He went from not only not playing, but not working out to playing right away, and then you do the three games in a row and his knee swelled up," Rivers said. "We didn't anticipate that, but obviously if we could do a do-over we probably would have sat him in one of those three games as well."
The Celtics could not have asked for more from their role players, but as Rivers noted, the team needs Allen and Pietrus back in order to be a serious threat in the playoffs. There is a reason four of these five role players have been confined to the bench for long stretches, whether due to health, inexperience or simple basketball reasons. Weaknesses get exposed with time, as Bradley's did in the waning seconds against the Magic.
Up until now, however far Rivers has looked down his bench, he has found someone to do exactly what he has asked. That might not work in a best-of-seven series, when the opponent has more time to game plan, but as long as it keeps working, it is a winning method for the Celtics.