INDIANAPOLIS — As Avery Bradley sat in a courtside folding chair before the Celtics’ shootaround Wednesday, he recounted players who had won the McDonald’s All-American slam dunk contest as high school seniors. He named LeBron James and Blake Griffin and Vince Carter. He looked over at Celtics teammate David Lee, who was lying on the court and stretching with a team trainer.
“D. Lee, you won the McDonald’s dunk contest, right?” Bradley said.
The 32-year-old Lee said that he had, joking that he took the crown in 1986. (It was really 2001.)
“D. Lee won it,” Bradley said, repeating the point for emphasis. “Honestly, a lot of people don’t know that I won it. And you want to know what’s shocking to people? I probably still have a 40-inch vertical.”
Bradley won the McDonald’s dunk contest in 2009, defeating Mason Plumlee and Derrick Favors in the final round with a mix of lobs, windmills, and reverse slams. But that part of his game mostly vanished after he underwent ankle surgery prior to his rookie year with the Celtics in 2010.
He is now in his sixth NBA season and has just 59 career dunks. By comparison, Griffin had 214 in his rookie year alone. According to basketball-reference.com, just 1.6 percent of Bradley’s field goal attempts last year were slams.
Bradley said former Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo used to avoid throwing alley-oop passes in his direction because Rondo did not think Bradley could reach them. Bradley, for the most part, has evolved into a relentless defender and a dependable midrange shooter. But it was not always that way.
“Before I got here, dunking was what I was known for,” he said. “I would dunk on somebody every day, every game.”
While the slam dunk can be thrilling for fans and humbling for opponents, it is not essential to the game. Still, it is relevant because of the style of play it is generally associated with. When a player attacks the rim, free throws and defensive adjustments usually follow. When an opponent must respect aggressive drives to the basket, other openings are usually revealed.
In the Celtics’ loss to the Spurs last Sunday, Bradley showed a glimpse of the player he once was, and it reminded him that it is also the player he still can be.
Before considering that startling slam, though, it is important to consider a play that preceded it. Late in the third quarter, Bradley drove through the lane and went up for a layup. The attempt was swatted away by Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, one of the league’s more dangerous defenders.
So when Bradley made a quick move past Leonard with 1:40 left in the game, the previous block was stored in his mind. Spurs forward Tim Duncan leapt to contest the shot, but this time Bradley violently flushed the ball through the rim with one hand, bringing the TD Garden crowd to its feet.
“He didn’t give it a chance to be blocked at the rim,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “That was the best part about that play to me.”
The jubilant reaction afterward was partly because it was a spectacular play, and partly because it was a rare occurrence. It almost felt like an aging veteran had turned back time. But Bradley is still just 24 years old, and he is confident that these strong drives to the basket will become more common this year.
“I just don’t think he shows it as much as he should, especially with his athletic ability,” said Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas, who grew up with Bradley in Tacoma, Wash. “When he gets around that rim, he can do a lot of those types of things, and hopefully [the dunk against the Spurs] gives him some confidence to really do that all the time when he’s around the rim, because he can jump.”
The hope, Thomas said, is that a few more hard-charging and high-flying plays will make teams play back on Bradley when he is on the perimeter, and also lead to more free throw attempts when he attacks.
Last season, Bradley’s free throw rate was .099, meaning he shoots about one free throw for every 10 field goal attempts. The always-attacking Thomas, meanwhile, had a free throw rate of .481, nearly five times as high as Bradley’s.
“I just have to be aggressive and think to drive and dunk and make plays like that,” Bradley said, “because I am capable of doing it.”
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Celtics guard Marcus Smart (toe) and forward Amir Johnson (ankle) both missed practice Thursday and their status for Friday’s game against the Wizards is uncertain. Smart missed Wednesday’s loss to the Pacers because of the toe sprain and Johnson injured himself during the game but was later cleared to return.