PHOENIX — After Isaiah Thomas was acquired from the Suns last week, Celtics coach Brad Stevens fielded questions about how Thomas could eventually pair with rookie point guard Marcus Smart.
Could they play well together? Could they become stars together? Could this work?
But Stevens was quick to include the team's other talented guard, Avery Bradley, in the conversation. Although Bradley is actually two years younger than Thomas, there is a sense that his ceiling has already been identified. With Smart and Thomas, there is more possibility.
While that may ultimately be true, Bradley has been one of the Celtics' most valuable, consistent players this year, and the recent West Coast trip was perhaps his most impressive stretch of the season.
"He's gotten better at a lot of the little things that can go fairly unnoticed in a game," Stevens said. "So, defensively, he's gotten way better, especially off the ball. And offensively he just picks his spots well. And that's part of feeling comfortable with who you are as a player."
Thomas's late flurry that included a 4-point play, a steal, and a layup was the defining segment of the Celtics' 115-110 win over the Suns Monday. Afterward, though, Stevens said Bradley's sequence that preceded Thomas's was most essential.
With 3 minutes 19 seconds left, the Celtics had seen a 20-point lead sliced to 3, and the Suns had possession with a chance to tie. Then Bradley stole the ball from Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, and Thomas found him at the other end for a 3-pointer. Bradley finished with 23 points and a career-high 6 steals.
In the Celtics' loss to the Lakers Sunday, Bradley scored 8 points in the final 27 seconds of regulation, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that sent the game to overtime. He seems energized by the arrival of Thomas, his childhood friend from the Tacoma, Wash., area.
"He's in a groove right now shooting the ball," Celtics forward Jae Crowder said of Bradley. "Other teams are locking into him, and he's still doing what he does — coming off pin-downs, shooting the ball, and taking great shots and knocking them in. He's showing a great leadership role."
It is a small sample size, but Bradley has been brilliant since the All-Star break. In the last three games, his assists-to-turnovers average was 6, up from the 1.1 he averaged in the season's opening half. His effective field-goal percentage — a metric that gives added weight to 3-pointers — increased from 48.9 to 57.1. Bradley is averaging 23.7 points and 4.3 steals per game since the break.
"I'm just believing in myself," he said. "My teammates are believing in me right now. I'm just trying to play as hard as I can.
"[Defense] is my main focus going into every single game, because I'm a defensive player first. That's my role on this team. That has to be my identity. That has to be our team's identity."
Bradley said his defense has improved thanks to an added emphasis on film study. Being more familiar with opponents' tendencies has allowed him to become a better, more prepared off-the-ball defender.
"The more consistent you become, the harder you become to take off the floor," Stevens said. "And he just becomes more consistent every time he's on the floor."
Suns forward Brandan Wright sat at his locker Monday with his old Celtics road jersey tucked in the cubby behind him. The Celtics brought it as a keepsake, although Wright's collection of Boston memories could be condensed rather easily.
He was acquired in December as part of the trade that sent Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks. Then he was with Boston for just 11 games — he played in eight — before being sent to the Suns for a pair of draft picks.
Despite the short stay, Wright was in Boston long enough to realize the franchise's outlook is bright.
"They're definitely on the upswing," he said. "Smart coaches and a lot of good, young players. Their core guys are really good. They have a great future in front of them."
Wright, who had 11 points and 5 rebounds against the Celtics Monday, knew that his expiring contract would make him a prime candidate to be traded; he just didn't expect it to happen twice. He is looking forward to signing a long-term deal as a free agent this summer.
"It'll be nice to get back to a more stable situation," he said, "and not be looking over your shoulder."
Back for seconds
The Celtics have thrived recently playing the second game on back-to-back nights. The victory over the Suns was their fourth in five tries on the tail end of a back-to-back.
"We do a great job of coming together," forward Tyler Zeller said. "We don't ever use the excuse that we're tired the second night. We just play hard every night, and most often, that's at least enough to give us a chance."
Crowder said back-to-backs offer a rare opportunity in which being a greenhorn team can have benefits.
"We're young guys, for the most part," he said. "We try to be the team that comes out and dictates the game."
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.