HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — With two-thirds of Boston’s Big Three now out of action and compromising the Celtics’ offense, the responsibility of keeping the team out of the dreaded eight-hole and a first-round series with the Miami Heat will be heaped on their ability to defend.
The shorthanded Celtics begin their final 13 games tonight against the New York Knicks (7 p.m. ET, TNT) with Rajon Rondo and now Kevin Garnett — Boston’s third- and second-leading scorers, respectively — sidelined. It means 22-year-old defensive whiz Avery Bradley steps up as perhaps the team’s most important player.
Seventh-place Boston gets New York twice this week, plus the sixth-place Atlanta Hawks, who are two games ahead of the Celtics and in a virtual deadlock with fifth-place Chicago. At worst, the Celtics, two games in front of eighth-place Milwaukee, want to maintain their position heading into the postseason.
Having played just 38 games this season after recovering from off-season shoulder surgery, Bradley is fresh and Boston’s best hope to defend their way through Garnett’s potentially crushing absence.
“I just think Avery Bradley has defensive DNA, I mean that’s who he is,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “He has great feet, he has great hands, he’s tough, he sticks his nose in there and I think a great defensive player has to want to get his hands dirty, and he does. Avery understands what makes him a good player and what gets him on the map is his defense.”
We caught up with Bradley during the Celtics’ visit to Dallas last week:
Q: You were a highly rated defensive player coming out of high school and you enhanced your reputation during your one season at Texas. It’s rare for a young player in today’s AAU culture to embrace defense. Why did you?
A: In high school I used to be the player that scored 30 and then take the challenge to hold the best player on the other team, have him not score. That’s the reason I think in high school I was fortunate enough to be ranked so high because that’s what I’d do every game. But that’s always just been me. I’m a competitor and that’s the only way I know how to play. If we’re playing pickup, I don’t want you to score. That’s just how I play.
Q: What makes a good defender?
A: It’s definitely mental, a lot of it, just like the game of basketball, but I think it’s a God gift and just me wanting to guard, that’s the biggest thing. If you give that effort, that’s all that coach asks for on the defensive end. That’s what I give.
Q: Was it easy for you to come into the league and quickly become an aggressive defender?
A: Definitely not because refs have no respect for you, so if you’re an aggressive defender being a young guy, it’ll get you on the bench fast. But I think it has its pluses and its minuses. If you come into the league as a young player and have an offensive mindset, the majority of the time you’re not going to play. That was my approach, defense, I knew that’s what was going to get me on the floor. I bought into our defense and not only that I wanted to take the challenge every single night to want to hold the best players, to get that respect, not only from my teammates, but players and the refs. That’s what I try to do.
Q: Obviously the Celtics and Miami Heat have engaged in some great battles, most recently the Heat’s comeback in Boston to keep their winning streak alive. How do LeBron James and Dwyane Wade treat you now?
A: I can’t really say, but I know they know what to expect from me every single game that I’m going to guard them. I’m going to compete. I’m not going to back down to nobody, ever. I can tell they know that and I can tell that they know that the whole game I’m going to be playing hard. You see people try to do the same thing to me that I do to them, but at the end of the day I never get tired so I’m always going to keep going. It’s fun, like I said, I just love taking that challenge every single game, playing against the best players in the NBA. It’s what I dreamed of.
Q: When did you realize that you could compete in this league?
A: Last year once I got an opportunity to play, it was around this time of year. I believe we had some players hurt and I got an opportunity to play. I think we played Dallas and then OKC. Those were my first games ever in the NBA playing the amount of minutes that I played since the last game of my rookie season that I played 20 minutes or something like that. That was big for me and that’s when I realized I could play in this league. I think I was playing against Jason Kidd and that was my first game playing like big minutes. I got to get a feel for the game and not only that, I wasn’t nervous. That’s when I knew I could play in this league, that I could be effective out there on the defensive and offensive end.
Q: Who do you look forward to guarding the most?
A: Everybody, every single night. Everybody is a challenge on every single team, especially at the point guard position. So I always have to prepare myself and not only that, people know what I do on the scouting report so they take it as a challenge to. At the same time, I feel like I have a target on my back. Regardless, I’m just going to play as hard as I can. As long as my teammates can say I play hard at the end of the game that’s all that matters, even if I’m not making shots.
Q: What thrills you most about making a defensive play?
A: Probably the best part of it, just me getting my teammates into it when they see me playing hard out there. It literally feels like it gives me more energy for me to play hard on defense. And then my teammates score and then I go back after the guy, and it’s kind of like, ‘Dang, can I get a break, you guys just scored.’ That makes me feel good. It’s more energy, it’s crazy.