|Getting the point: Avery Bradley and E’Twaun Moore||02.01.12 at 1:13 am ET|
When Rajon Rondo went down with a sprained right wrist late in the third quarter against the Raptors, those that have been predicting the Celtics’ imminent demise sensed the end creeping ever closer. How would the Celtics survive without their only true shot-creator and undoubtedly their best player this season?
Amazingly, the Celtics have not only survived, they’ve prospered, winning five of seven games to reach the .500 mark and rattling off their three most impressive wins of the season: beating the Magic twice and the Pacers on a second night of a back-to-back.
The most obvious reason for their success has been the reinvigorated play of Paul Pierce. After dropping 20 points on the Cavs in a tighter-than-it-needed-to-be-but-still-a-win performance on Thursday, Pierce has scored 155 points in the seven games without Rondo and also has 52 assists. Pierce has taken over the playmaker role and his game returned from the lockout ether at just the right time.
Offensively, the Celtics have been winning games almost in spite of Rondo’s replacements at the point: Avery Bradley and E’Twaun Moore. The young guards often bring the ball up the floor and make the first pass, but it’s been either Pierce or Kevin Garnett in the high post who then initiate the offensive sets. That formula has worked well enough for the Celtics who have generally played to their offensive efficiency of 98.9 points per 100 possessions.
Bradley and Moore have also had their moments offensively. Over the last four games, Moore has made 11-of-18 shots and gone 5-for-10 from 3-point range. Moore has been steady, if unspectacular, at the point with 10 assists and eight turnovers and has quickly gained the trust of the coaching staff, as well as his teammates.
Like Moore, Bradley has mostly kept his turnovers down. Eleven of his 15 turnovers during this stretch of games came in two contests. Limiting turnovers is no small thing for a team that has struggled mightily throughout the season in that regard.
Bradley has had success scoring at the rim where he’s shooting 64 percent. Against the Cavs, Bradley was able to duck in for layups and also had a strong move working across the lane. He has the athleticism to finish inside and is starting to figure out that he can’t bull-rush taller defenders. Where Bradley has struggled is with his jump shot. He’s made just 10-of-28 shots from 16-23 feet this season and is just 1-for-11 from 3-point range.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers expressed confidence in Bradley’s shaky jumper before the Celtics played Cleveland in Boston on Sunday.
“Avery’s a better shooter than what he’s shot, and we can’t figure it out, honestly,” the coach said. “He makes them in practice, he makes them in the gym when he’s working out. The only guess is that the game is still a little too fast for him. And, at some point, a ball will go in, he’ll slow down, and he’ll make the in-between jump shot. Because that’s what he can make and he can make that consistently.”
While he learns the limits of his offensive game, Bradley is making a name for himself as a defensive specialist. His one-man press against Orlando’s Jameer Nelson set the tone for the Celtics absurd defensive performance in an 87-56 victory and he helped hold Indiana’s Darren Collison in check in the win over the Pacers. Bradley had his problem with Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving, but give credit to Irving who is having an exceptional rookie season.
Neither Bradley nor Moore is a long-term solution for Rondo if his injury lingers for long, but in a pinch they’ve been more than adequate replacements averaging 12 points and five assists over the last seven games.
More importantly, both players have shown that they can have a role with this team, especially with Keyon Dooling also battling an assortment of ailments. That’s a positive development for the Celtics as they continue to try to sort out rotations and minutes.