About an hour before Wednesday night’s game vs. Memphis, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge shook hands with Avery Bradley as the guard left the court to prepare for his season debut. Ainge grinned and then returned to his cellphone conversation with the knowledge that, for the first time all season, his desired backcourt of Bradley and Rajon Rondo would be on the floor together in a game.
That backcourt failed to produce the desired result as the Celtics lost their fourth straight game, 93-83, to the stingy Grizzlies at TD Garden. The Celtics allowed Memphis to shoot 61 percent from the field in the first half on its way to a 9-point lead at the break. That lead ballooned to 18 points at the start of the fourth quarter. One game into his return, it’s clear that Bradley’s defensive prowess cannot keep a team down all by itself. Bradley had 4 points and one steal in 20 minutes against the Grizzlies.
“You have to play a while to get your feel back,” Bradley said after the game. “It’ll come. I’m not really worried about that.”
The Celtics have been worried about their defense, which alternates between respectable (they rank 13th in defensive rating, which measures points allowed per 100 possessions) and porous (they gave up an average of 108 points in the last three games of their recent road trip). Bradley is supposed to help, but the Celtics actually played their best on defense without Bradley Wednesday night after getting down by 18. Courtney Lee began the fourth quarter at shooting guard, and with him in the game the Celtics trimmed the deficit to 13. Enter Jason Terry, who made the bulk of the starts in Bradley’s absence. With Terry in, the Celtics cut the deficit to 5 with just under five minutes left in the quarter. Back-to-back 3-pointers from Terry got the Celtics back into it, while back-to-back shot clock violations on the other end highlighted a renewed commitment to defense. The Celtics kept Bradley off the floor for all but the end of the fourth quarter, choosing to ease him into his first game action.
“He’s going to slowly work his way back and get his legs in game shape,” said forward Paul Pierce.
The Celtics are hoping that Bradley’s defensive energy eventually becomes contagious. Coach Doc Rivers called Bradley’s defense on the ball Wednesday night “terrific,” adding, “Avery’s going to help us. You could see that.”
There were glimpses against Memphis, but they were overshadowed by the final product. With 9:53 left in the third quarter Bradley side-stepped to the right spot and gave Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley nowhere to go, causing Conley to step on the sideline. Bradley let out an enthusiastic shout as he ran back down the court.
But at other times, Bradley failed to slow down Conley, and the point guard finished as the game’s high scorer with 23 points, making 3 of 6 3-pointers.
“It’s not guarding our guys,” said Bradley. “We’ve all got to be on a string and helping each other out. Once we learn that we’ll be fine. That’s been our struggle, what we’ve been working on a lot in practice.”
Center Kevin Garnett, who brought the defense-on-a-string mentality to the Celtics when he arrived in 2007, said Bradley would be a big part in the team getting back there.
“I thought he brought some good energy,” said Garnett. “It’s good to have him back. He’s a big part of this scheme. We want to be better and he’s a big part of that process.”
For those questioning just how much of an impact one player can have on a team’s defense, Rivers pointed to the locker room across the hall, where former Celtic Tony Allen has the Grizzlies ranked No. 1 in the NBA in defensive rating and opponents’ points per game.
“You take one great defensive player and you put him on a team and that team’s going to be a better defensive team,” said Rivers. “And as important as bigs are, if it’s a guard that applies pressure, that fuels energy. You see it. It’s hard for you not to do it. You’ve got this guy doing it and what are you going to do, not do anything? It clearly helps.”
It didn’t help enough Wednesday night, though the third-year player remained positive.
“Every team has its ups and downs,” said Bradley. “The best teams are the ones who can go through the adversity. I feel like we’re going to overcome.”