BOSTON (AP)(STL.News) — Avery Bradley has been doing all the little things to get the Boston Celtics over the hump this postseason.
Yes, he created a buzz with his playoff-career high 29 points to give Boston a 3-2 lead over the Washington Wizards while backcourt mate Isaiah Thomas was facing double- and triple-teams during Game 5.
But it’s been Bradley’s consistency on defense during the first two rounds that has the top-seeded Celtics on the verge of an Eastern Conference finals matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Despite playing after suffering his second hip pointer injury of the series, Bradley annoyed Wizards’ point guard John Wall throughout.
The primary defender on Wall, he helped hold Washington’s All-Star to just 21 points and 17 field goal attempts. He also limited him to a playoff-low four assists — well below Wall’s playoff average of 11.1. In Boston’s three wins, Wall has a plus/minus of minus-17.
“Avery’s the best on-the-ball defender in the NBA — hands down,” Thomas said. “A guy like John Wall you’re not gonna stop.He does a hell of a job on him. He makes it tough. Nothing’s easy. And that’s what Avery Bradley does, each and every night.”
Bradley said he was inspired by text messages he got from Thomas and Celtics’ television play-by-play man Mike Gorman.
“They told me they felt like it was going to be a big game for me,” Bradley said of his Game 5 performance. “My mindset was just to come out and be aggressive. I wanted to make those guys work on both ends of the floor.”
In a perimeter-oriented NBA in which rim protecting big men are a dwindling luxury, guards like Bradley who are willing to dedicate themselves on the defensive end are a commodity. He’s 6-foot-2, but has enough length to bother shooters, the lateral quickness to keep opponents in front of him and the strength not to get bullied.
In Boston’s three wins Bradley has constantly crowded Wall, tormenting him with an assortment of stabs and pokes at the ball, while also cutting off his driving lanes.
Part of the reason is that Bradley is playing so inspired is that he is coming off a truncated 2016 postseason.
His playoff run lasted all of one game last season thanks to a hamstring injury in the opening game of Boston’s first-round matchup with Atlanta.
He’s made the most of being healthy this time around.
Bradley, who typically has shied away from any verbal back and forth, has had moments during his postseason in which he let his feelings be known.
After the Celtics’ series-clinching, 22-point win at Chicago in the first round, Bradley was asked about some outward emotion he exhibited during the game. Bradley said he took some comments made by Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler between games personally.
“There were a few guys that walked up to me and said ‘I think Jimmy had said last game that we can’t let guys like Avery Bradley score 20,'” Bradley recalled. “I usually don’t say anything, and I just go out there and play hard. But I feel like every player should respect this game.”
Bradley channeled those feelings into one of his best performances of that series, scoring a game-high 23 points. Butler also finished 23 points, but had only six after halftime.
The Wizards are well aware of Bradley’s ability to disrupt offenses.
“He’s a great defender, and has a knack for the ball,” Wizards guard Bradley Beal said of Bradley. “You can’t mess with the ball when he’s guarding you. You have to keep things simple…Defense is his specialty.”
Al Horford marveled at Bradley from afar last season as a member of a Hawks team that exploited Boston with Bradley being sidelined.
Now as his teammate, Horford has an even greater appreciation for what he provides.
“People don’t realize he’s guarding the best players pretty much all the time,” Horford said. “For him to be able to do that and be effective with that and score the ball, the way he was doing it (Wednesday night), was a lot of fun to watch.”
But the praise he’s received this series won’t cause Bradley to slink back into a reserved posture.
Bradley garnered his third-career technical foul in Game 5 against Washington, which ignited the Garden crowd. But it was a show of emotion that Bradley said might be a bridge too far — even for a guy who’s feeling freer to embrace his inner tough man.
“I have to be smart about it still,” Bradley said. “But I have passion for every single game. I want to go out there and give my all.”