WALTHAM — Word spread fast, gaining speed as his point total climbed with every remarkable basket, alerting the masses to stop and bear witness, because Stephen Curry was absolutely shredding the New York Knicks and their nets.
Avery Bradley watched, too. He saw the Golden State Warriors guard nearly short-circuit Madison Square Garden’s scoreboard Wednesday by dropping 54 points in a narrow loss, a performance that ranks high on the game’s historical rungs, one achieved at its so-called “Mecca.”
Bradley watched because he knew he’d be guarding Curry two days later at another Garden, the one with 17 banners hanging in the rafters. He was doing his homework, scouting the hot-as-Hades shooter whom he is supposed to shut down cold.
Bradley’s Celtics teammates call him “Pit Bull” because of his defensive tenacity. The nickname is earned because he latches onto opponents as soon as the ball is thrown in and then refuses to let go until some buzzer sounds. Scorers find him to be, shall we say, a pest.
But Bradley said he has not truly faced Curry before, so when they step onto the parquet Friday at TD Garden, it will be a matchup of elites: a top-shelf shooter who rains fire from beyond the arc and elsewhere, and a lock-down defender who turns every possession into war.
When asked Thursday about Curry making 11 of 13 3-point attempts against the Knicks (one shy of the NBA record for makes) and scoring more points than anyone else in the NBA this season, Bradley said, simply, “He was feeling it. He’s a good player, a great scorer.”
A Celtics official at the team’s practice facility then pointed out, jokingly, that Bradley shouldn’t talk too much about Curry, lest the challenge of guarding him start to weigh on Bradley’s mind, causing him to lose sleep.
Bradley smiled at that remark, and continued to dribble a basketball off to the side.
But did Curry’s performance make Bradley a tad excited about the prospect of cooling off a player who is averaging 46 points in his last two games?
The Pit Bull wouldn’t bite. He shrugged at the query. “No, it’s the same every game.”
The NBA, Bradley said, is loaded with talent. If it’s not Curry one night, it’s Deron Williams another. Or Russell Westbrook. Or somebody else.
“You go up against a tough opponent every single night at the point guard position,” Bradley said.
And so Bradley’s mission against Curry is simple, devoid of complexities but forceful in direction: “Just make everything hard on him on every possession.”
Coach Doc Rivers noted that, more and more, teams are screening Bradley to free up the point guard he’s hounding. Rivers expects the Warriors to do that, and he expects other Celtics to help.
Still, the responsibility of guarding Curry rests mostly on Bradley’s surgically repaired shoulders.
“I don’t know if Avery is going to shut down everyone, but I know he’s going to give you the attempt to pressure,” Rivers said. “And ball pressure is important.
“I just use the football analogy: If you didn’t blitz Tom Brady and you just let him sit back there all day, he’d pick you apart. It’s the same in basketball. If you let them just sit there with no pressure, they’re going to pick you apart.
“Avery is our blitzer.”
The issue with Curry is that he has a lightning-quick release, one that requires only a sudden flick of his wrist. He doesn’t need much space to shoot, nor does he mind shooting from absurd distances.
“If Avery doesn’t match up with him until a couple steps after he passes half court, he’s a threat to pull up from there,” said a Western Conference scout.
Plus, Curry is more than a shooter.
“If you double-team him, he’ll find an open player,” the scout said. “If you single-cover him, he’s crafty enough to work off the dribble or on the pick-and-roll.
“He’s not a one-dimensional guy.”
Said Celtics forward Paul Pierce, “Great offense trumps great defense every time when you have a special player like that. It’s going to be tough, unless you have a guy like Avery Bradley on him.”
Bradley is a defensive luxury, a one-man force who allows a stingy .0678 points per possession, which ranks in the 96th percentile among all NBA players, according to Synergy Sports data.
Opponents also shoot 30.9 percent against Bradley and turn the ball over 14.7 percent of the time, the data state.
“In my eyes, he’s probably the best on-the-ball defender in the NBA,” Pierce said. “I’d be very surprised if he didn’t make the All-Defensive Team.”
Bradley’s defensive impact on the Celtics as a whole can be measured, too.
In the Celtics’ first 30 games this season without Bradley, when he was rehabbing his shoulders, the team’s defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) was 102.1, the 13th-best mark in the NBA at that time.
But in the 27 games since Bradley has returned, the Celtics’ defensive rating has skyrocketed to 97.2, the second-best mark in the league in that span behind Indiana.
Truth be told, Rivers didn’t believe Curry faced much defense against the Knicks. When asked who would guard Curry, Rivers quipped, “Everyone — or if he plays [like he did against New York], no one.”
When it was suggested that the Knicks did a decent job of guarding him, Rivers said, flatly, “That’s debatable.”
The issue, Rivers said, is that defenses can’t really keep the ball out of Curry’s hands because, as a point guard, it’s usually already in his hands.
Defenses were once trapping Michael Jordan so much that former Bulls coach Doug Collins moved Jordan to the point position so that he’d have the ball to open the possession. That made it that much harder to stop Jordan.
“That’s how you feel with Steph,” Rivers said.
A Celtics win won’t depend solely on Bradley’s defense on Curry. Other factors matter. But few factors will be as crucial. On an interpersonal scale, it’s a classic case of immovable object meets unstoppable force, of offensive might versus defensive will, with reputations and victory at stake.
. . .
Forward D.J. White has officially signed a 10-day contract with the Celtics . . . Rivers said he wasn’t sure but he believed the Celtics would sign Terrence Williams to another 10-day contract; Williams’s current 10-day contract is set to expire Friday . . . Pierce said that pain in his neck is partly to blame for his up-and-down play this season. He expects that pain to linger the rest of the season.