LOS ANGELES — When Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge decided not to make a deal at the trade deadline last week, it meant his team’s lone addition for the stretch run essentially became Avery Bradley.
Bradley missed all but four games in January and February, yet he was able to return to the game on Wednesday night after sitting for 23:35, and he was able to knock down a crucial 3-pointer and then play stifling defense against Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving.
Given the buyout market has just about dried up, the Celtics are going to have to move forward with the players they have. Because the Celtics went 15-7 in Bradley’s absence, he was somewhat forgotten. Coach Brad Stevens soaked up his minutes with Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown.
The Celtics actually improved defensively with Bradley out, but what they missed was his on-ball defense, especially against elite point guards. And Isaiah Thomas definitely needs another scorer and someone to distribute the ball when he is being trapped by defenses.
Bradley did not want to impose himself too much on the rhythm of the team when he returned for Monday’s game against Atlanta. He wanted to blend in at the outset but it didn’t turn out that way. His impact was felt immediately, and it truly feels like the Celtics have received a roster rejuvenation with his comeback.
“It’s a good feeling, and that’s what I play this game for — is to go up against the best players,” he said. “I know I haven’t been out there in a while but hopefully I can still be mentioned for the first-team All-Defense. It’s something I take pride in every single chance I get. I love going up against the Kyries, Russell Westbrook, all those guys.”
Despite being 26 years old, Bradley is the senior member of the team, drafted just a few days after the Celtics lost in Game 7 of the NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2010. Yet it’s Thomas who has taken the responsibility of being the vocal leader. In some ways, Bradley still appears to be one of the young guys in the locker room.
He is a role model with his work ethic but has been working alone the past few weeks because of his Achilles’ tendon injury. Bradley understands his role on this team. He relishes defending. He has worked feverishly on his perimeter jumper. Before he was injured, he was the Celtics’ leading rebounder.
Thomas is the central figure of the offense, and Bradley becomes another player he has to incorporate. The Celtics don’t want to be too Thomas-centric offensively, so he was able to give scoring opportunities to Jae Crowder as well as Bradley in the fourth quarter against Cleveland. Thomas scored only 6 of the team’s 29 points in the final period.
“It’s important for all of our guys to step up,” Bradley said. “Jaylen’s gotten an opportunity and played very well on both ends of the floor. Isaiah trusts those guys and we’re a team and [Thomas] is getting better at how to make plays for our team, seeing that defenses are focusing on him and trapping him, he’s learning. He’s making the right play 100 percent of the time.
“The way [Thomas] is scoring the ball this year is amazing and it’s definitely the focus point when teams are guarding us and we know that. As a team, we have to be ready, everybody, to make the shot because it helps our team.”
Asked if he felt like a new acquisition because he’s missed most of the last two months, Bradley laughed. He’s definitely returning with more energy and passion because of the missed time.
“I just want to go out there and play as hard as I can,” he said. “When we don’t have energy, I’m hoping I can bring that energy and if it’s not me, I’m telling guys on the bench, ‘You need to bring that energy.’ I’m just happy with the way our team’s playing right now and hopefully I can jell in perfectly for the way that we’re playing.”
Bradley will lead in his own understated way. His personality and demeanor are geared more toward subtle leadership, which can be as impactful as vocal authority.
“I take guys to the side, I talk to guys on the bench,” he said. “I don’t really scream at anybody. I want to see everybody do well and I don’t want anybody to have their head down or get frustrated because we need each other. When their name is called they need to go out there and play with a free mind. I try to help everybody out.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.