CHICAGO — At a time when any bit of good news is devoured and any roster transformation is welcomed, the Celtics embraced the return of Avery Bradley to practice Monday at the United Center, offering hope that their best defender is close to making his season debut.
Bradley, the third-year guard, has not played since Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals May 18, when the pain from two partially dislocated shoulders was too much to bear. He had surgery on his left shoulder in May and the right shoulder in July.
He had been working out in non-contact drills for the past few weeks but a one-on-one session with player development coach Keyon Dooling Saturday in San Antonio was the final hurdle to returning to full-contact practice.
Bradley participated in the 90-minute session with no issues but a date has not been set for his game return. For coach Doc Rivers, the possibility of Bradley in the lineup gives him more options for the distressing shooting guard position.
The team’s acquisition of Courtney Lee was supposed to add depth and give the Celtics a dependable starter to replace Ray Allen but Lee has struggled mightily on offense. Rivers said he will stick with Lee as the starter because he likes veteran Jason Terry coming off the bench, but the offense to begin games suffers.
“I want Jason off the bench. You could see how well he’s playing now. He’s comfortable there,” Rivers said. “We’ll just keep starting Courtney or whoever. I like Jason off the bench. I don’t think it helps the starting lineup right now but you put him on the starting lineup and then our bench struggles. It’s one or the other.
“Honestly, Jason and Courtney are really great in the second unit together. They really move the ball. The last three or four games our second unit has really come in and made runs for us.”
Bradley supplanted Allen as the starter last year, helping the Celtics’ second-half resurgence but he has yet to play a full season because of injuries. The Celtics have been meticulous with his rehabilitation and had targeted December for a return six months ago.
Bradley had been pushing to come back earlier but head trainer Ed Lacerte kept him at bay until a text message Monday morning gave him the approval to practice.
“I’ve really been looking forward to it, it’s been a long time,” Bradley said before practice. “I’m just excited to get out there and feel like I’m part of the team again. It’s been very hard for me. I’m used to playing basketball dang near every day during the summer, not being able to play and this injury and having to be patient, it’s been hard for me. But I feel like it’s going to pay off now. I feel like I came back stronger, stronger than I’ve ever been.”
Rivers made it clear that the starting shooting guard slot is available for Bradley, and he would prefer to bring both Lee and Terry off the bench.
“Yeah, [but] he’s got to get it,” Rivers said of Bradley eventually returning to the starting lineup. “But he’ll have to earn that and get it but I think on paper, it looks better. But you have to wait and see how it works once he gets back.”
The Celtics have stumbled to become the defensive team Rivers envisions and it begins with failing to stop dribble penetration. With Bradley, Rivers can assign him to the team’s opposing point guard to apply ball pressure as he did during stretches last season.
But Rivers said Bradley should not be relied upon to individually upgrade the defense.
“We’ve got to be a better defensive team,” the coach said. “Avery’s going to help us but he ain’t the savior. But he’s absolutely going to take a lot of pressure off the guys. He’s going to do what he does defensively. Having said that, other guys have to join in.”
Bradley will stabilize the guard position and give the club another eager defender. Terry has mostly come off the bench in his career and has tallied 30 points in the past two games in a reserve role, boosting the offensive bench production.
“On paper, it looks better [for our bench] once he gets back,” Rivers said.
“I keep reading about [how good] our second unit [should be] or hearing about it, but we’ve got to do it consistently. I do think we got the players but we just haven’t had the performance.”
Bradley’s return was welcomed by teammates.
“Avery really came a long way last year in helping this team build some success, especially the second half of the year,” forward Paul Pierce said.
“Just to get him back is really going to add to our depth based on what we already got. He has to work his way back into game shape. He just gives us that versatility that we can have on defense, able to guard two or three positions.”