Avery Bradley may want to get fitted for a white 10-gallon hat, or maybe blue tights and a red cape, because if he truly ends up rescuing the Celtics from their current defensive crisis, it will be a feat worthy of the Lone Ranger or Superman.
When the Thunder visited Boston last month, Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks could not find enough nice things to say about Bradley. The third-year guard out of Texas built a cult following last season when he emerged as a defensive stopper for a Celtics team in need of a spark. Now, the Celtics are counting on him to do the same when his shoulders are fully healed from offseason surgery.
“Avery’s one of the best perimeter defenders in the league,” Brooks said. “He showed that last season. Even when he was hurt, he still battled out there and did some amazing things. You respect guys that play with toughness, and he’s a tough guy that plays hard every possession. You need them. You’re not going to win in this league if you don’t have toughness at the defensive end.”
After Tuesday’s listless effort in Chicago, it is clear that the Celtics lack that toughness defensively. Whether Bradley alone can change the identity of an entire team is less clear.
Two dozen games into the season, the excuse of trying to implement six new bodies into the system is no longer an acceptable justification. Courtney Lee has the defense down, and he has been a member of the team no longer than Jason Terry, barely longer than Leandro Barbosa and way, way less than Rajon Rondo. But all three of those guys have looked clueless or careless at times on defense, while Lee has been solid and seems to be getting gradually better. The Celtics’ defensive shortcomings are not an issue of chemistry. They are a matter of attention to detail — or lack thereof, more accurately.
After the Celtics’ last home game, a 117-115 slugfest against the Mavericks that also happened to be their last victory, coach Doc Rivers opened up about the defensive adjustments he has made. The hedge-and-recover method of defending the pick and roll has become less effective as guards get better at attacking bigger defenders off the dribble, so the Celtics have taken to trapping more often. The traps, particularly with mobile, athletic big men like Kevin Garnett and Chris Wilcox, disrupt the guard’s timing and have led to more deflections at times. But it is not a miracle pill for an ailing defense.
“We’ve just decided, let’s not wait for the guard [to attack] anymore,” Rivers said after the Dallas game. “Let’s just get it out of his hands. It’s asking the bigs to do a lot. They’re out trapping at the 3-point line and then they have to run back and find another big. Overall, it’s been good.”
The farther the big men extend themselves, though, the more pressure is put on the other three defenders who are not directly involved in the play to fill in the gaps. In many cases — not just against pick and rolls — those other defenders are players like Green or Terry, who too often make the wrong rotations or rotate late. Perhaps even more troubling, Rondo has taken to gambling again, which he tends to do when he is frustrated. Several times on Tuesday, Rondo flailed for a pass as Kirk Hinrich caught the ball and effortlessly drove around him. A 31-year-old guard should never be able to drive past Rondo. Never.
Here is where some people will start wondering about potential trades, since several of the Celtics’ offseason acquisitions became eligible to be traded Saturday. Here is where others might start looking toward Bradley, hoping that the young ballhawk can take some of the pressure off Rondo by returning to the backcourt.
Neither of those approaches is likely to be a perfect solution. The only players available for midseason trades generally are flawed players, so the Celtics would be exchanging one problem for another. Bradley will boost the defense, but his playing time will most likely come at Lee’s expense, which means the Celtics would be exchanging one of their few reliable defenders for another. Rivers could play Bradley and Lee together, but that would mean fielding a backcourt with a limited offensive repertoire. (If only the rules allowed Rivers to sub in his “offensive backcourt” of Rondo and Terry whenever the Celtics got the ball, this problem would be solved.)
By most indications, Bradley has surprised his coaches and teammates with his fitness and quick recovery after double-shoulder surgery, and the swiftness with which he improved his jump shot last season should educate anybody who would bet against him. Still, the task in front of Bradley — improve Boston’s defense, all on his own — appears to be one that is too tall, even for him. Unless, of course, he is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
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