Doc Rivers has tried to stay away from giving Avery Bradley any advice about what the playoffs may hold. He figures Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and the other Celtics veterans may have done enough psychological damage already.
"They'll scare him enough," Rivers said, "so I don't try to add more."
Bradley personified the Celtics' improvement in the final month of the season. Whereas Garnett, Pierce and Rajon Rondo may have been more important to the team's 14-5 record since March 25, the most obvious change in that time was Bradley's insertion into the starting lineup on that date against the Wizards. The second-year guard has started every game except one at shooting guard since then, and he has been the dominant topic of discussion during opposing coaches' pregame media availability.
Yet while Bradley has been a part of opponents' game plans, the condensed schedule has given coaches little more than a game-day walkthrough to quickly introduce Bradley's tendencies to their players. In almost every game toward the end of the regular season, there was a moment when Bradley would fly into the lane for a layup or dribble off a screen for a jump shot, and his defender would have an expression that said, "He can do that?"
There will be no element of surprise in the playoffs. The Hawks will have more time between games and will devote longer hours to studying Bradley, something they have been able to do since the first-round matchup was essentially sewn up more than a week ago. In addition, Atlanta guards Jeff Teague and Joe Johnson got two up-close looks at the new Bradley in the last three weeks. They certainly know what he is capable of after his 28-point performance last week in Phillips Arena.
The Celtics' more seasoned stars have warned Bradley that he will not find it as easy to cut to the hoop unabated or to get to his spot in the corner for a 3-pointer unmolested.
"They told me a lot of teams crack down on their scouting report," Bradley said. "Not only that, but you're going to be playing against the same team back-to-back games, so they're going to know your tendencies. We're going to have to execute and really make sure every play counts."
Ryan Hollins, who made it to the Western Conference Semifinals with the Mavericks in 2009, summed up the playoffs by calling it "the NBA game on steroids." The rest of the Celtics described the postseason in similar terms, which was why Rivers refrained from adding anything that may lead Bradley to believe he is going into battle, rather than getting ready for a simple game.
"All I talk about is execution," Rivers said. "The playoffs is a single-possession game for 48 minutes. That's the mindset young players, who usually don't have a sense of urgency about them at all, have to get in the playoffs. Every single possession is a big one. There's no 'my bads.' Every single possession could be the possession that changes a game."
And that was what Rivers said to try to lessen some of the pressure.
If anything, Bradley seems eager to get his first shot at playoff action. He got a sense of the intense atmosphere while watching last year's playoffs from the bench, and he has responded to the Hawks' anticipated game plan by getting more aggressive with his own homework. He has worn out the scouting report and video on every Hawks guard from Teague to Johnson to Jannero Pargo, as Bradley could match up with any of them at any time in the next four to seven games.
Game 1 is not until Sunday, but Bradley has already noticed a change in the Celtics locker room. Garnett and Pierce donned their game faces a little earlier than usual prior to Thursday's regular season finale, something that Bradley attributed to the second season being right around the corner.
"You see everybody's face change when they walk into the gym," Bradley said. "Everybody's serious. I'm just excited to get a chance to play in my first playoffs."
As he said that, it was hard not to notice that the wide-eyed look he had just a couple of months ago was gone. Bradley was getting serious, too. The first-timer knows well what is at stake in the playoffs.