The Celtics entered tonight's game against the Indiana Pacers at the TD Garden winless since Christmas, desperate for any signs of life they could find, any way possible of ending the four-game losing skid that had dropped them under .500 on the season.
What they found was the perfect cure -- a breakout game for defensive stud Avery Bradley, and with it, a ripple effect through the entire team defensively.
The result? A blowout win over a strong Indy ballclub, a 94-75 smackdown that was never in doubt from the second quarter on.
"It's funny," coach Doc Rivers mused postgame. "Avery was 3-for-11, but he may have been the most valuable player tonight. His defensive pressure on the ball made them take so much time to get into their sets. And when they got into their sets, it wasn't in the right spot. They had to throw it to places they didn't want to. It allowed our entire defense to be dominant."
Were they ever. The Pacers' 75 points were a season low for any Celtic opponent, and even reaching 75 required a sudden burst of offense in garbage time. With seven minutes to go, the Celtics' lead was a laughable 81-59 -- it was only after Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce were on the bench and Kevin Garnett was ejected that Indy could make the score even respectable.
The defensive domination began with Bradley. The Celtics had been struggling for weeks to find their rhythm defensively, and they needed a shakeup. Bradley, who finally returned Wednesday after a long road back from double shoulder surgery, was a breath of fresh air. He applied constant full-court pressure on the Pacers' primary ball handler, play after play after play, and he wouldn't relent. His aggression freed Rondo up to focus his energy elsewhere, and it made everyone else's job easier in turn.
"I think it's important because Rondo doesn't have the guard the ball up and down the floor every single time," Rivers said. "Point guard is hard. You've got to guard the ball, then you've got to bring it up the floor under pressure. When you've got another guy and you can say, 'You guard the ball, and I'll just run back,' that gives you a lot of juice. It helps. And I think it really helps Rondo."
"That's what I try to bring every night," Bradley said of his ball pressure. "I try to bring that intensity on the defensive end. I know that's my role, to bring the energy when I come into the game. I try to make it hard on the opponent every single night. I just try to make it hard on them, and that's what I did tonight."
Bradley isn't a finished product yet. Not two games in. He's basically only scoring on wide-open transition opportunities -- his aggressive midrange game isn't there yet, and his much-ballyhooed corner 3-point shot is still rusty as well. He's still a non-factor for the most part on offense, forcing Rondo to step up and carry even more of the workload than usual on that end.
But his D? That's game-changing. He only had one steal, one block and one defensive rebound, but his pressure on the Pacers' ball handlers was stat-defyingly brilliant, and it made everyone around him better. It also left everyone in the Boston locker room praising him.
"It just means I'm taking steps forward," Bradley said of his teammates' support. "I've just got to continue to get better and better."
With that attitude, you've got to like his chances. And maybe, just maybe, you could say he's got this Celtic team moving in the right direction.