Twice after their division-clinching victory against the Magic, Kevin Garnett  made his case to the Celtics  organization for rewarding Avery Bradley  financially after his successful sophomore campaign.
“I love seeing young guys who work hard and it pays off,” said Garnett. “I love young guys who listen and actually put in the work. Just from seeing where he’s come from to where he’s at now is just beautiful, man. I hope they’re able to reward him with some longevity and some loyalty — something long-term. I’ve always said to him, ‘Continue to work, because that’s what’s got you here,’ so I’m happy for him.”
The problem is Bradley isn’t slated to become an unrestricted free agent until the 2015-16 NBA season. He’ll make $1.6 million next season, $2.5 million in 2013-14 and at least the qualifying offer of $3.6 million in 2014-15, facts that may have escaped Garnett, who has made at least $14 million in each of his last 14 seasons.
It’s a great problem for the Celtics, because Bradley has established himself as one of the best bargains in basketball. With Rajon Rondo  also locked up through 2014-15 at an average of $12 million over the three years, the C’s have one of the youngest, most affordable starting backcourts and two of the best trade chips in the NBA.
“Avery’s emerging,” said Keyon Dooling , “so we might have to give him like a Big Five or something.”
Correction: Avery has emerged. His evolution was discussed at length in Wednesday’s Irish Coffee . After tying a career high with 23 points on 10-of-14 shooting against the Magic, Bradley has averaged 14.8 points while shooting 54.6 percent from the field (96-176 FG), 56.3 percent from beyond the arc (18-32 3P) and 83.9 percent from the free throw line (26-31 FT) in 16 games since joining the starting lineup on March 25.
“What you see is a product of a young guy being around our system and gaining confidence within that,” added Garnett. “Not just from Doc Rivers  and the coaching staff, but being able to gain confidence in his teammates and within himself. Avery’s playing as good as any other player in this league, including anyone on our team. He’s playing with a high confidence right now. We’re loving it. We’re fueling it.”
As colleague Paul Flannery asked, Would Bradley have even gotten his chance if the rumored Ray Allen for O.J. Mayo trade  ever came to fruition? Now, the Celtics probably wouldn’t trade Bradley straight up for Mayo, a notion that seemed ridiculous months ago when they were still trying to pigeonhole the 21-year-old into a backup point guard.
“It just takes time for guys to figure out who they are, and it takes us time as a staff to figure out who he is,” said Rivers in his appearance on The Dennis & Callahan Morning Show . “It does go both ways. The one thing, if we did make one mistake, it was forcing him at the point guard. That just robbed him of his confidence.”
Deflecting blame for not realizing Bradley’s potential until now, Rivers claims his new starting two guard wasn’t prepared until he focused on impacting the game defensively rather than offensively. Needless to say, that approach is paying off, to the extreme that Bradley has at least one unofficial NBA All-Defensive vote already.
“He’s got his confidence going, and he’s got the confidence of our coach,” said Dooling. “He’s really carved out a niche on our team. You can talk about the offensive part with Avery, but he’s the best perimeter defender in the league. If you poll around the league, if you ask point guards who they hate playing against, most everybody would probably say Avery Bradley. He’s a special player.”
Bradley isn’t afraid to accept the challenge of guarding opposing two guards, either, and that could pay huge dividends for the Celtics in the playoffs. If the season ended today, the 6-foot-1 Bradley would draw the assignment of what Rivers called “his toughest test” in 6-foot-7 Hawks  wing Joe Johnson  with possible matchups against crafty Bulls veteran Richard Hamilton  and Heat superstar Dwyane Wade  looming in later rounds.
“I think he can handle any of them, and there are some big ones, Wade being one of them,” said Rivers. “But Avery is a tough kid. Even last year, the one thing we talked about with Avery, he can guard anybody. His problem last year was more the team defensive schemes and his overall confidence. He really wanted to be a scorer, and now he lets scoring come to him. But I won’t think size will be a problem.”
Jokes about Bradley replacing Ray Allen  in the starting lineup turned serious when the C’s dominated the Heat 91-72, capping a 5-0 stretch while Allen nursed an ankle injury. Quite simply, they’re a better team as a result.
“Now, what we’re doing, if you watch us play at the beginning of games, we try to establish Kevin and Paul [Pierce], and we are having Rondo be more aggressive defensively,” said Rivers. “Avery and Brandon [Bass] never get a call. They score just through the offense, through their cuts … and Rondo doesn’t feel the need to have to call a play for somebody else. That’s why Ray is so important, because when he comes off the bench, it’s Ray and Kevin again … so it’s easier for the team to use Ray that way and use Avery the other way.”
In a matter of months, Bradley has won over his teammates and coaches. Not bad for a shortened season’s work. All that remains is earning the confidence of the Celtics brass, who may have to broach his contract situation sooner rather than later. If Garnett has anything to say about it. Which he does:
“With young guys, man, ego comes into play a lot, just because of where they come from — institutions, their past, accolades. When you get to this level, it’s like starting off fresh. Clean slate from zero. Everything you’ve accomplished means totally nothing on this level. To get anything, you have to be able to take it … and that’s gotta be your mentality. I saw it in him from day one from a defensive standpoint, and I told him if he continues to work that I felt like he had the tools and the ability to be something special in our league.
“In our system, it’s kinda different, because you have a role, and you have to play that role. We’re a defensive team first, so it was natural for him to slide into a defensive set and let that be what he is, and he’s embraced that role.
“Now, getting confidence on the offensive end, being able to make shots, have confidence in his own game, come out, run our system, understand his place here, now he’s playing with a free mind.
“He’s playing aggressively, attacking the rim. On top of everything, he’s hitting 3-pointers, chest bumping, having his own little swagger, if you will. I love it. I love it, man, because the guy works really hard, and that’s what you want. So, I hope in the end it all pays off and they take care of him.”
(Have a question, concern or conception for tomorrow’s Irish Coffee? Send a message to @brohrbach  on Twitter.)