Avery Bradley made just two field goals last night, but they were early and he was super aggressive and — who knows? — maybe the resulting onslaught never would have occurred without the kick start from Boston’s most baby-faced guard.
Bradley didn’t know he would even suit up until just more than an hour before tip-off, when Boston’s team doctors watched him shoot jumpers with a bulky wrap on his left shoulder and gave him the thumbs up to continue. Due to the rate at which Bradley hoisted jumpers in the first quarter, his right shoulder might have likewise become sore after the game’s first five minutes.
If there was a better example of the 21-year old’s booming confidence, it does not immediately come to mind. And if there was a better measurement of his changing league-wide perception than the way Atlanta sprinted at him to close out on his shooting hand, I am not aware. This was a critical Game 4 of Bradley’s first playoff series (he received DNP-CDs in every postseason outing last year), and he would not stop looking for his offense, at least before foul trouble stole a large portion of his rhythm.
He launched and missed a three two minutes in. A couple possessions later he caught a pass in the corner and fired again. Another miss. If this had been last season, or even January, he would have retreated with tail in hands and an elephant sitting atop his confidence, crushing it. But this is now and Bradley is different, and so he dribbled off a screen and drilled a 20-footer on the move. The Celtics were ahead, 8-6. They stopped the Hawks on the ensuing possession, Rondo corralled the rebound and Boston was back to the races. Bradley ran straight to the three-point arc. Rondo saw him and showed a level of trust that certainly didn’t exist before Bradley’s post-All-Star break rise. He found Bradley in the corner and the second-year combo-guard, or whatever the hell he is, canned a trifecta in transition.
The TD Garden crowd came to life like it never did in Game 3, when the Celtics dragged their feet throughout an overtime victory. Bradley had taken hold of the city, the series, even his teammates, and — like they were inflatable water rafts — breathed until they could float into sea. The Celtics scored on their next possession to build a 13-6 advantage. The Hawks called a timeout, but the waves didn’t stop crashing over their heads. The score ballooned to 32-19 at the end of one, 64-41 at halftime and 80-43 when Bradley buried a free throw with 8:12 left in the third quarter. The third-quarter charity shot followed a scary moment when Bradley took an inadvertent (and very slight) shove in the back. He crashed, with his injured left shoulder prominently involved, into the basket stanchion. But he bounced up and the Celtics crowd could exhale.
Bradley would miss his final three field goals and finished with just six points. But while discussing his availability for Game 5, he gave one more glimpse into his ever-strengthening psyche:
“I’m ready, and I’ll be ready for Round 2,” he said.
You know, assuming the Celtics get there.