BOSTON — Avery Bradley was a 21-year-old 3-and-D prodigy when the 2011-12 Boston Celtics took the Miami Heat to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, but after usurping Ray Allen’s starting spot that season, his playoff road ended in Game 4 of the second round. Bradley’s shoulders could no longer take the constant dislocating that plagued him in his second year on those prideful Celtics.
“I wish I could rewind,” he said after finally finding playoff redemption on a career night for his current Boston team’s 123-101 Game 5 win over the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference semifinals. “I always tell myself I wish I could’ve played through my injury when I had my shoulder surgery.”
Boston began its rebuild in 2013, trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett a year after their third conference finals appearance. Rajon Rondo, Bradley’s best friend on the team, got his walking papers the following season. Suddenly, two years after his playoffs were cut short, Bradley was the longest-tenured Celtic at age 24 in the first season of a four-year, $32 million deal many ridiculed as excessive.
The Celtics were in dire straits during Brad Stevens’ first year at the helm, winning just 25 games in 2013-14, but Bradley never wavered, staying his 3-and-D lane. Now, three years removed from the franchise crumbling around him, a 26-year-old Bradley finally got to play that Game 5 in the second round, and those two surgically repaired shoulders of his had little problem carrying the load.
Bradley netted his career playoff high by halftime, finishing with 29 points on 12-of-19 shooting while holding Wizards star John Wall (21 points on 7-of-17 shooting) in relative check. Gone is that 3-and-D prodigy, and in his place is arguably the league’s most underrated player — a guy who delivered on teammate Isaiah Thomas’ pregame text reassuring him he was about to have the night of his life.
The result was a 3-2 series lead for the Celtics heading back to Washington for Game 6 on Friday night.
“To be back here again is a blessing, and we need to take full advantage of this,” said Bradley, who added six rebounds and three assists. “Next game, we need to come out and play with purpose. We’re in a great position, and it’s a great opportunity to make the Eastern Conference finals. We have to understand that, and we’re one game away, so we have to give our all next game. I told the guys, ‘The best feeling after we lost two games there would be finishing this series on their home court.'”
The home team had won each of the first four games of the series, and the Wizards entered Game 5 needing one road win against the top-seeded Celtics. They viewed Wednesday as merely the first of two opportunities to get that job done. After Bradley’s career night, there may be no second chance.
Bradley battled bruises on both sides of his pelvis, but he wasn’t about to let a pair of hip pointers keep him from seizing this moment, not after his shoulders had robbed him of his last chance in 2012. He scored 14 first-quarter points, two more than he did combined struggling through Games 3 and 4.
“Fine,” Bradley said of his hips. “Those two days [of rest] were very important for me. I feel like our training staff is the best. They made sure that I was in twice a day icing my hips, taking care of myself, and I just wanted to come out and play as hard as I can, play through the pain, whatever it is.”
Beyond Bradley, the struggling Celtics starters finally came through. Al Horford was on his way to a triple-double before the game got out of hand, collecting 19 points (on 8-of-9 shots), seven assists and six rebounds in 28 minutes. Jae Crowder contributed 18 points and eight boards, and All-Star Isaiah Thomas — serving as Robin to Bradley’s Batman for once — added 18 points and nine assists.
“They literally have almost three guys on me, and there’s no way that I could just keep going like that, so I’ve got to change it up until things open up,” said Thomas, as a smile washed over his face at the end of his press conference. “Next game might be another game where I’m setting screens and getting other guys open and getting in the paint, dishing out, or next game I might drop 40. You never know.”
The Wizards seized early leads and unleashed endless runs on the C’s through the first four games, with Wall & Co. running wild in transition. But they no-showed in Game 5, shooting 39.3 percent as a team and getting subpar games from Bradley Beal (13 points on 19 shots) and the rest of the roster.
Boston flipped the script in the first quarter of Game 5, scoring 16 straight after the Wizards made the first two buckets of the night and winning the fast-break points battle 15-0 in the opening 12 minutes. Horford and Bradley went to work from the opening tip, pushing Washington’s attack to the mid-range on defense and orchestrating an efficient offense. Bradley slowed Wall to a 1-for-5 crawl early on.
“Avery’s the best on-ball defender in the NBA,” said Thomas, “hands down.”
A late-arriving Boston crowd was out for blood as soon as they settled into their seats, chanting, “We want Oubre,” the Kelly who bull-rushed their Kelly (Olynyk) and earned a Game 4 suspension for it. The C’s obliged, raining 3-pointers at a 16-for-33 (48.5 percent) clip on the night, including four from Bradley. The Wizards were cooked. The Celtics led by as many as 22 points in the second quarter, and a 3-pointer 20 seconds before halftime gave Bradley his career playoff high (25 points) before the break.
After starting a combined 6-for-22 from the field, Wall and Beal made their final five shots of the half, trimming Boston’s lead to a tenable 16. Outside of their two guards, the Wizards had few options and fewer answers. C’s coach Brad Stevens gambled on Amir Johnson, keeping him in the starting lineup despite the slow starts, and it paid off. Washington bigs Markieff Morris (9 points, five rebounds) and Marcin Gortat (7 points, 11 rebounds) were silenced after barking in the aftermath of Game 4.
The Wizards did well to contain Thomas, shadowing Boston’s MVP candidate with bigger wings Beal and Oubre and throwing the kitchen sink at his pick-and-roll action. They turned him into more of a facilitator than the deadly scorer he was last time we saw him in Boston. The C’s were just fine with that strategy, using Horford as the show-runner instead, so long as Bradley & Co. remained ablaze.
The Wizards forced their way to the basket and cut Boston’s lead to 13 midway through the third quarter, but the Celtics kept firing, and the lead ballooned back to 20. Oubre returned to a more vulgar response from the crowd, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick held up a “Let’s Go Celtics” t-shirt on the Jumbotron between quarters, and TD Garden erupted into a frenzy for the fourth. It was over.
“F— you, Oubre” chant in Boston.
— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) May 11, 2017
But not before things only got worse in the fourth. Boston’s lead grew to 26, despite Bradley getting a jump on his team’s only day off before Game 6, resting those sore hips for the entire fourth quarter.
“He played like he’s supposed to,” Thomas said of Bradley’s career night. “He played through it. It’s the playoffs, and we needed him to play that way. He put his injuries aside and laced his shoes up and played. He was the key to this game on both ends of the floor. Offensively and defensively, he did it all, and we need that from him. Even in Game 6 we need that from him, and I’m proud of him. I told him before the game that I believe in him and that he’s going to have a big game, and he did.”
There are few similarities between the aging championship Celtics KG’s “Area 21” celebrated Monday and these up-and-coming C’s, but one of them is grit, and Bradley is the sole bridge between the two.
“That’s part of being a leader,” Bradley said of his effort. “I try to lead by example. I try to go out there and give my all and hope that everyone else follows. And I feel like that’s what happened tonight.”
The student has become the master, and the Celtics are on the brink of the conference finals again.
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