Bradley, Lee, and Green: Athletes-R-Us

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Late last season I wrote a post entitled: Key Celtics Trend: Speed Kills that was inspired by how excellent (and different) the Celtics looked as a team with Avery Bradley starting instead of Ray Allen. Here is the money quote from that article:

The Celtics are suddenly athletic.

There have been signs. Moving KG to center and replacing Ray with Avery Bradley means that suddenly the Celtics are quicker and faster than just about everyone else at every position. Rondo is a blur. Bradley is Wade-like in his athleticism (we'll revisit this soon). Garnett is quite possibly the quickest center in the NBA. Bass and Pierce are both sneakily quick as well, and ironically they are now the two positions with the least amount of quickness advantage vs. their opponents.

There are multiple benefits to this new-found quickness. For one thing, the team is able to play faster. The defense is a bit sharper, and we are starting to win more of the hustle plays. Offensively the team can get out on more fast breaks, and even in the half-court the team can do more cutting and diving that leads to easier buckets.

But an unlooked for advantage is that the team is now built to beat the Heat.

I really believe that Bradley's injury was just as huge for the Celtics as Bosh's injury was for the Heat. That ultimately, the difference in last year's playoffs was that the Heat got their game-changer back while the Celtics didn't. I even wrote about the exact mechanism of how this would work, before the series ever began, in my series preview:

The absentees. Chris Bosh is an All Star and nominal member of the Heat's so-called Big Three, but the Celtics' loss of Avery Bradley is arguably just as big in this match-up. I wrote about this earlier in the season, but Bradley and his defensive athleticism was a HUGE weapon against Dwyane Wade. Wade has individually torched the Celtics in each of the last two postseasons, and Bradley was our best hope to change that trend this year. With Bradley out and Ray hobbling, I see Wade as an obvious aggressor in this series. However, Bosh's injury does help to mitigate the loss, because Garnett will be able to play more help defense and help on the inevitable Wade penetration. We don't have to STOP Wade and LeBron in this series (not sure that's possible), but if we can keep them under a combined 55 points on reasonable or less efficiency, the Celtics will be in a very strong position.

Ultimately, this is exactly what we saw play out. With Bradley out and each of Pierce, Ray and Pietrus hobbling, the Celtics no longer resembled the uber-athletic team that I raved about in the spring. They had no chance to really slow LeBron over the full 48 minutes, and their only chance on Wade was for KG to help so completely off of his man that his guy was essentially playing a game of "self check". This worked when the guy he was guarding was Joel Anthony or even Udonis Haslem, but when Chris Bosh came back the self-check strategy flamed out in a hurry and the Heat were able to come back for the 7-game series win.

Fast forward to this offseason.

I've already talked about how excited I am that Jason Terry is in the fold as our secondary lead guard, and all of the things that I think he brings to the table. And Terry is who has received the lion share of the attention as the Ray replacement, because he is now the 4th big-named veteran scorer and he also has a history of big shots in big moments like Ray. But as I alluded to in the article, I see Terry as replacing Dooling in the 2nd unit for half of his time as the back-up lead guard, and "only" playing the Ray role at the end of halves in the crunch time unit.

No, the players that will be replacing Ray and Mickael Pietrus as the primary non-Pierce wings for most of the game are now Bradley, Courtney Lee, and Jeff Green. Three of the five most athletic players now on the roster. Three young guys all reaching the height of their physical prowess. In other words, suddenly, the Celtics are once again poised to play like Athletes-R-Us.

This tells me that Danny saw the same thing that I saw during the brief time last spring when everyone was healthy: with Garnett anchoring the defense, surrounding him with athletic defenders on the perimeter means that the defense becomes nigh impenetrable. Similarly, with Rondo leading the offense, sending him out there with guys that can run with him and finish athletically when he sets them up at the rim is a recipe for a lot of easy offense. Win, and ... win.

The Celtics-Heat playoff match-up in each of the last two seasons has been analogous to a tennis match where one side (the Heat) had a ridiculous serve (their youthful athleticism) that just put pervasive pressure on the opponent and eventually wore them down. Last season the Celtics almost solved them anyway, but the loss of Bradley/return of Bosh proved to be too much and in the end the Heat's energy and speed won out. But by tripling down with Bradley, Lee AND Green, Danny has put out a supporting group around KG/Pierce/Rondo/Terry such that lack of athleticism should no longer be an issue. These Celtics are, more than any other team in the NBA (or any previous iteration of themselves), built to beat the Miami Heat.

But not JUST the Heat.

There was a stat floating around last season that with Rondo, Bradley and Garnett on the court the Celtics had some absurdly low defensive rating. Now, the core of Rondo, KG and either Bradley or Lee will be on the court for the majority of every game...barring a KG injury, we're looking at the best Celtics defense since 2008.

Similarly, on offense we now have both depth as well as variety added to the mix. Bradley has an absolute nose for the off-ball cutting which leads to easy buckets for him off of Rondo/KG dimes, but he also was developing into a strong 3-point shooter. Lee is athletic enough to have already tweeted about dunking on a Celtic big man this summer, but by percentage he was Ray's equal from behind the 3-point line on the baseline. And if healthy, Green has the kind of garbageman mix of inside and outside scoring that the Celtics have simply not had outside of their core players.

But more than that, a wing crew featuring Bradley, Lee and Green in addition to Rondo gives the team the jolt of youthful athleticism and energy that should help insulate an extremely veteran KG/Pierce/Terry core over the long grind of an 82 game season + playoffs. Pierce and Terry should both be able to lower their minutes and thus play to maximum capacity with lessened energy risk. KG/Pierce/Terry shouldn't have to do heavy lifting every night to pull out games...they should be able to pick their spots more. With a suffocating team defense, a more opportunistic offense, and young horses in the stable to pull the squad through the rough times, this year's C's should be poised to take a shot at the best record in the league without completely burning out. This is a beautiful thing.

And frankly, I'm just looking forward to pulling for a team that should just be a lot of fun to watch this year. The season can't get here soon enough.

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