There's no room for mistakes. Every move is magnified. Every dribble is a struggle. Crossing half court, a task which feels tedious on most occasions, is akin to gasping for air.
This is what it feels like to be guarded by Avery Bradley.
Celtics fans have been on the less claustrophobic side of this feeling for three years now and yet, the level of appreciation might still not be where it should. The perception of Bradley right now is that he's in the upper-middle class of NBA players - someone who is either the last member of an average starting five, or a role player off the bench for a good team. In trying to argue that he's more valuable than that, using the basic numbers won't help.
Last season, Bradley averaged 9.2 points, 2.1 assists, 2.1 rebounds, 40.2 percent shooting from the field and 31.7 percent from beyond the arc. For a starting two-guard in his third year, the offensive figures are underwhelming. In all fairness, Bradley is more known as a defensive-minded player. Let's look at steals, a strong suit of Bradley's. Here are three unidentified players and their steals per game for the 2012-13 season. Try to guess which one is Bradley.
Player A - 1.4. Player B - 1.3. Player C - 1.3.
If I told you Player C was Paul Millsap, you would assume Bradley is Player A because of the higher steal average. Player A, however, is DeMarcus Cousins, who's average actually dropped from 1.5 from the previous season.
This isn't a long-winded way of saying Bradley isn't the defensive stalwart we consider him to be. It's a long-winded way of saying Bradley's statistics are so under-representing of his value that the perception of what he brings to a basketball team, especially this Boston team, is not on par with reality.
Bradley is not an average, easily replaceable player. In an ever-changing, evolving league, he's actually one of the best role players in the NBA and one who's game is unique.
Let's think of the different types of role players: serviceable big men, swingmen, spot-up shooters, scoring sixth men, backup point guards and defensive stoppers. Bradley technically falls into the last group, but what separates him from a player like Tony Allen is his relentless full-court pressure defense. While Allen and similar defensive stoppers will hound their assignments for approximately 30 feet on every possession, Bradley's pressure spans over three times the court - 94 feet. From the inbound pass to the change in possession, Bradley's constant defense is unparalleled.
As refreshing as Bradley's defense is, it's the other side of the ball for which the 22-year-old draws criticism. Even though Bradley shared the court with Hall of Famers and primary offensive options Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the lack of growth in his offensive game through three seasons is disappointing. In his second season, it appeared as if Bradley was coming into his own as a solid mid-range shooter and a corner 3 (the most valuable shot in the NBA) assassin. He netted 49.8 percent of his field goals and 40.7 percent of his treys. As mentioned earlier, those numbers took a sharp downward dive this past season.
The reason for the decline was multifaceted. As well as Bradley shot in 2011-12, it was in much lower volume and when his minutes increased by over seven per game this past year, he had a hard time sustaining the efficiency. Then there's the surgery he had on both of his shoulders which forced him to sit out until January. With 50 games and a healthy offseason under his belt, Bradley's shooting could return to his second-season form.
Both of these factors are significant to Bradley's play, but it's a "who" that most affects his offensive performance, not a "what." It's no secret that Rajon Rondo and Bradley have an uncanny connection on the court. Cutting back door isn't the sexiest play and it's an ability that's lost on many current NBA players, but Bradley has a knack for slipping between defenses and Rondo has the vision to find him open. It's led to easy baskets in the Celtics offense and the connection between the two sometimes appears telepathic.
The problem, however, heading into this season is the uncertainty of Rondo's health. Not having Rondo on the floor hurts the entire offense, but it particularly hurts Bradley. Along with possibly being without Rondo for an extended period of time, Bradley no longer has Pierce, KG or a shooter like Jason Terry for defenses to key on to free him up. There will be a lot less offensive space to work with, even less so than the shrinking floor which Boston struggled to score in towards the end of last season and in the playoffs.
Focus on the offense if you want, but understand that a substantial increase in offensive responsibility will detract from Bradley's defense. It's impossible to put as much energy into the defensive end as Bradley does, without sacrificing some offense. With the talent level of guards in the NBA right now, it's still amazing how well Bradley does in staying in front of his assignment, regardless of how much effort he allocates to that side of the ball. But the value of having essentially a specialist to neutralize opposing players and provide extra possessions with forced turnovers at the expense of an average offensive player is, even in a league that is getting smarter, not fully realized.
The question is, with two years left on Bradley's contract, whether or not the Celtics want to tie up half of their future starting backcourt to a player with a low ceiling on one end of the floor. Before you consider that question, refresh your memory:
How many role players are there in the league right now that can flip a game on its head without scoring? We'll probably never know what happened to Bradley up until that fourth quarter in Game 6, but we know what happened when he started playing the way we've become accustomed to watching.
In an upcoming season that will offer more questions than answers at first, one thing will be constant and unrelenting: 94 feet of pressure. Let's not take it for granted.