WALTHAM, Mass. — For most of the last two seasons, Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley have been like tag-team wrestlers. When one checks in, the other one checks out.
The two members of the Boston Celtics’ preferred starting backcourt have suffered from bad timing in their respective battles with injuries. Just when one seemed to be getting healthy, the other went down. While one regained his rhythm, the other rehabbed.
Barring any setbacks with Bradley’s sprained right ankle, however, the two guards should be back in the lineup together Sunday, when the Celtics host the Orlando Magic. Rondo, who would love to have a familiar face to throw passes to, is looking forward to it.
“I’m always excited to play with Avery,” Rondo said after practice Friday. “He’s a great competitor. He’s going to compete every possession on the floor and he always accepts a challenge.”
Bradley’s biggest challenge recently has been staying on the court with Rondo. Three games into Rondo’s return from a torn ACL two weeks ago, Bradley sprained his ankle against the Miami Heat and missed the next five games. He went all-out on the ankle for the first time Friday and expects to play Sunday, which would be just the fourth time since Jan. 25, 2013, that he and Rondo were active for the same game.
“That’s our goal,” Bradley said, hedging against any discomfort that might arise Saturday. “Obviously, if something changes, if it starts hurting me, I’m not going to play.”
Much is made of Rondo being a unique player, all of it true. But Bradley brings a set of skills that are just as unique. His tenacity as an on-ball defender is well-known and his corner 3-point shooting has quietly earned respect across the league. While neither skill impacts the game as greatly as Rondo’s elite court vision, their impacts on the game are significant enough for the Celtics to have missed them greatly during Bradley’s absence. They have also missed Bradley’s 14.5 points per game on 43 percent shooting.
The transition from lockdown defender to lockdown-defender-plus-scorer isn’t one Celtics coach Brad Stevens has a lot of experience with. In fact, Stevens doubts any coach has much experience guiding a player in such a transition. Normally, a coach needs to help a shoot-first player build his game at the defensive end, not the other way around.
“There’s only, like, seven guys that start out wanting to be defenders in the world,” Stevens said. “That’s the way that that works. Very rarely does that shift ever happen, because it never starts out that way.
“I don’t know that he’s a guy that’s made a shift so much as he’s just kind of grown into the game. The game has probably slowed down for him offensively. He was 19 or 20 when he got into the league, he’s had his fair share of injuries and he hasn’t been able to consistently play through a season until this year, until the last two weeks. Hopefully, that’s all adding up.”
What also sets Bradley apart is that even as his offensive responsibilities have expanded, he hasn’t abandoned the defensive end of the floor, where he made his reputation. He’s topped 20 points while recording zero assists in five different games this season, which would normally be cause for Jordan Crawford-type mockery. But it’s hard to criticize Bradley for selfish play when he sacrifices so much on defense.
“Avery’s one of those guys that can do it on both ends of the floor,” Rondo said. “He’s been great this year, even when guys were out. He stepped up scoring-wise and still checked the best perimeter guard defensively.”
Celtics coaches, fans and other close observers have watched for two things since Rondo’s return: How he moves and how he meshes with his teammates, almost all of whom are brand-new. Only Jared Sullinger, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Bradley are holdovers from last season, and Bradley is the only one who had played with Rondo for more than two seasons entering the 2013-14 campaign.
Not surprisingly, Rondo has not looked as confident threading passes through the defense. It’s hard to tell whether his timing is simply off after nearly a year on the sideline or if he is not yet comfortable with all of his teammates. Either way, Bradley’s presence should help him. In Rondo’s own words, “I know his game; he knows mine.” That’s not something Rondo can say about a lot of other Celtics players.
When Bradley was emerging as a competent scorer early in the season, there was some concern from pro-tank fans that the Celtics might be too good when Rondo returned. A healthy Rondo and an improved Bradley could be enough to lead the Celtics into the playoffs in the thin Eastern Conference, the thinking went, and the possibility still stands. Somehow, the Celtics are just 5.5 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot, despite losing 19 of their last 22 games.
No matter what the math says, however, the Celtics haven’t had the feel of a playoff group over the last month. It takes a shared resolve to turn an underwhelming record into a postseason run in a bad division, sort of like what the Toronto Raptors have shown in rising to the top of the Atlantic Division. Provided there are no more injuries on the horizon, Rondo and Bradley could be the combination that reinvigorates the Celtics with that resolve. Together. For once.