Despite Avery Bradley being in his fourth season with the Celtics and considered starting caliber for two of those years, Sunday was just the 30th time he and Rajon Rondo were in the starting lineup together.
Injuries to both players have delayed the Celtics’ ability to determine whether this combination could be effective long term. The Celtics took a couple of years to determine Bradley wasn’t a point guard and he was left in limbo because in previous years he wasn’t considered a good enough shooter to be considered a shooting guard.
Those days are past, and against the Orlando Magic in a Super Sunday afternoon matchup at TD Garden, the team’s brass as well as invested fans finally got a slice of the duo’s potential. They combined for 36 points on 15-for-23 shooting with 12 assists, 8 rebounds, and 4 steals in the 96-89 win.
This backcourt never will lead the league in scoring, but if Rondo can distribute and defend and Bradley can harass opposing scorers as well as hit the jumper dependably, they could flourish.
Bradley is a restricted free agent this summer and the Celtics have to figure out their strategy if he gets a lucrative offer from another club. Bradley’s résumé is incomplete because of injury, but he returned faster than expected Sunday from a sprained right ankle and swollen right hand. He looked confident, flowing with Rondo, who had no issue swinging Bradley the ball in his optimal spots.
It will require a handful of games to determine whether they can mesh long term, but Sunday was a promising beginning.
“Our chemistry is fine. He hasn’t forgotten how I play and I haven’t forgotten how he plays. It’s the same,” said Rondo, who notched his first points-assists double-double (19-10) since returning from right anterior cruciate ligament surgery. “We just know how to play the game. He knows the game of basketball. He knows when to make cuts. He’s just a smart player, and I think I’m a smart player, too.”
It is paramount for the organization’s future to determine whether Bradley is a bona fide starter or perhaps an energy player off the bench. He is painfully young (23) and is years from entering his prime. Having entered the league at 19, Bradley won’t be even 24 before he likely signs his first long-term contract following his rookie deal.
This is the time for him to show the Celtics organization and coach Brad Stevens that he is essential to their rebuilding plan. Stevens acknowledged such on Sunday.
“Huge. Huge priority for me,” Stevens said. “I think that those guys’ play — they seem to be on paper really good fits — but you know it’s better to see them in person. Rondo for instance made a couple of plays where he was pulling up and shooting off the ball screen; we went up by 3, he had a pick away for Avery, Avery came off the down, shot it in, we go up by 5. Their strengths fit each other well on both ends of the floor, and so hopefully that can continue to be accentuated as we get further along into that — we add to those 30 games.”
With the final 33 games of the season being about development and determining which players are capable of fostering the rebuild, that Rondo-Bradley combination should be on the court for as many minutes as Rondo’s surgically repaired knee permits. Both players can defend. Rondo is the best passer in the NBA and Bradley is rapidly gaining confidence in his jump shot.
In one fourth-quarter sequence, Orlando’s Arron Afflalo came off a screen with Bradley tattooed to his jersey and managed to swish a 17-footer. Bradley did not become discouraged. He countered with a jumper of his own, getting knocked down in the process and canning both free throws for an 83-78 lead. Bradley polished off the victory with an uncontested slam dunk in the final seconds.
In past years, Bradley would have allowed his defensive slippage to affect his offense. He would not have been prepared to take a jumper just 15 seconds after being scored upon. But his maturity is stunning. Bradley is turning into a reliable and confident shooter.
“I think it can be very good, not just on the offensive end but on the defensive end as well,” Bradley said of his chemistry with Rondo. “We play off each other on defense. When I’m tired of pressuring somebody, pretty soon Rondo is going to be able to pick them up full-court. That’s just how we play.
“It’s very frustrating [to have played together so seldomly], not only for me but for him as well. Because we love playing with each other. We just love it, because we complement each other so well. But now we get a chance to be on the court together and to build with this team. We’re just excited about it.”
For a team that’s lost 19 of 23 games in the past six weeks, positives have to be unearthed somewhere, and watching Rondo and Bradley blend in the final three months of the season should be a pleasurable experience.
“They really haven’t gotten much time together in the last two years,” Stevens said. “I think it’ll be nice, but I’m not expecting them to play like [Larry] Bird and [Kevin] McHale just yet, either. It’s something that takes a little bit of time to get the feel of how they play best together, but I do think they can be a heck of a combination. And I do think they really like playing together, so I think it’s really good for them to now get a chance to do it.”