It was the final minute of the first half of Wednesday night’s game against the Raptors, and the Celtics found themselves in what has become a familiar position: in danger of trailing heading into halftime, a potential precursor to what would have been a 10th straight loss.
But then Avery Bradley took over.
The speedy shooting guard’s fast-break layup gave the Celtics a 2-point lead. Twenty seconds, another flash of speed, and one more fast break later, Bradley sunk two free throws to give the Celtics a 45-41 lead and the TD Garden fans something to get loud about.
The sequence pressured the Raptors into taking a timeout, but it did not do them much good. The Celtics never ceded the lead en route to an 88-83 win, just their second since Christmas.
Bradley finished with 20 points and five rebounds, the third game in a row and fifth this month in which he has reached the 20-point mark.
He is averaging 17.8 points in January, a steady increase from the 15.6 he averaged in December and the 13.0 in November.
“He’s getting a lot better,” coach Brad Stevens said. “I think he can double his improvement. I think he’s got a steep, steep curve here. I think you can always get better. I think he’s working to get better.”
Early in Wednesday’s game, that Bradley would even be able to play enough to put up another big performance was in doubt. He left the court with a trainer toward the end of the first quarter after scoring just 2 points in nearly eight minutes.
Bradley’s self-diagnosis was “a little sprain or whatever.” The Celtics called it a bruised right hand.
Either way, it didn’t seem to bother him much. He returned to score 14 points in the second quarter, helping Phil Pressey — the undrafted free agent rookie making his first NBA start, at point guard no less — lose some of those opening-minute jitters.
“His ability to score, come off screens, and score helps out,” Pressey said. “Also his defensive intensity — when I see him guarding his guy, it makes me want to pick up and try to guard my guy the same way.”
Stevens, too, was impressed with Bradley’s defensive effort, particularly in the waning minutes when Toronto was threatening to completely erase Boston’s 18-point lead.
But if you ask Bradley, he was just following the boss’s orders.
“[Stevens] said before the game, Toronto is a very good team because they play hard,” Bradley said. “And he said, the only way we’re going to win tonight is if we play harder than them. I feel like that’s what we did. We were getting all the loose balls and it was leading to baskets for us. That was huge for us.”
Also huge for the Celtics? Rajon Rondo’s return, widely expected to come Friday at home against the Lakers.
Bradley did not want to comment on how the All-Star point guard’s presence will enhance his own game — “He’s going to make it easier for everybody,” Bradley acknowledged — but it’s hard to imagine it having anything other than a positive effect.
All that while Bradley, on pace for his best month as a pro, has reached double digits in seven of the team’s nine games in the new year.
Jerryd Bayless has been a Celtic for only six of those games, which is plenty to make a good impression.
“I didn’t know he was that good,” Bayless said. “And he is very good.”