Avery Bradley's hamstring injury is a real gut punch. Forget that he's our best defender and second leading scorer. Forget that he's our best weapon against the likes of Jeff Teague, Kyrie Irving, Demar DeRozan, and Stephen Curry. Forget that he's arguably our best shooter on a team starving for outside shooting. AB is the heart and soul of this team, the kind of two-way player that epitomizes Celtics basketball on both ends of the floor. He never complains and stays focused and within himself.
But he isn't replaceable.
Maybe "replaceable" isn't the right word. Brad Stevens and the Celtics won't be able to replace or replicate or reproduce what Bradley brings to the team, but someone is going to fill in and the Celtics will be fine. Yaron Weitzman's article for SBNation was entitled "Why the Celtics are doomed without Avery Bradley," but that's a bit Chicken Little in my opinion.
Don't get me wrong. I love Avery Bradley. I once compared him to Rajon Rondo's Joe Dumars and well, I wasn't too far off. He's been a perfect complement to this generation's Isaiah Thomas as the quiet defensive stalwart alongside the more brash playmaker on the floor. He's one of the team leaders in +/- and finished 6th in Defensive Player of the Year voting. He'll certainly be missed, but hey, it's next man up.
One of Weitzman's doom-and-gloom points is that the Celtics will miss Bradley's scoring. Sure, AB lead the team in offensive rating in the regular season and shot a respectable 44.7% from the field. He was Stevens' favorite go-to player to start games, and he had his most efficient season of his six-year career. However, as Weitzman points out, a lot of Bradley's looks came off of curls and pin-downs. While those are plays designed to get him open looks, they don't exactly involve the entire team. Of AB's 456 made field goals, 73.2% were assisted. Only Kelly Olynyk scored a fewer percentage of his points with him creating his own shot.
Think Ray Allen in the Big Three era. Doc was fond of running him of two or three screens just to get him an open shot, but if the defense recovered quick enough, Ray Allen wasn't a very good playmaker off the dribble. Bradley has improved from last season with his driving and finishing around the rim, but instinctively, he's not a slasher. Now consider the two guys that could take over Bradley's 33 minutes: Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier.
Both are A+ defenders. Smart has been playing D and coming up with big plays all year, but even the rookie knows what his priority will be:
"Defense -- just keeping the guy in front of me. Definitely rebounding more at the guard spot. And pushing the ball," Rozier said. "I just want to push the pace. I know Coach loves when I push the pace, loves when we play fast. He doesn't like when we play slow, so I think I can help doing that."
Bradley has experience on his side, but Smart and Rozier should be able to fill in on defense admirably. What will really change the game though is the difference in style on the offensive end. Smart and Rozier are natural point guards whereas Bradley is more of a natural two-guard. For what it's worth, Bradley averaged 2.2 assists per-36; Smart and Rozier dished out 4+ each potentially in the same span. Neither Smart nor Rozier are accomplished pick-and-roll PGs at the pro level, but they're aggressive drivers looking to put pressure on the defense and create for their teammates.
When asked about what the Celtics needed to improve on after Game 1, Jared Sullinger quipped, "make a shot." No doubt they'll have to shoot better against a Hawks team that also shot poorly in the opener (5-for-26 from 3), but more importantly, they need to challenge Atlanta's defense and get better shots. In the first half of Game 1, 34 out of Boston's 52 field goals came outside of the paint. They made eight and went to the line only 19 times to Atlanta's 35 for the entire game.
When Evan Turner started the second half, it wasn't just a matter of spacing the floor and playing small ball. It was about not settling. Eighteen of Boston's 31 third quarter points came at the rim. They weren't generated off of turnovers. With the added ball handler in the lineup, they could push the ball in transition and drive the ball more in the half court. It allowed Thomas to play off the ball and the defense couldn't key on him as easily. That's what Smart and Rozier will have to do to maximize their playing time, particularly on offense. With every touch, they should be on the attack.
That's just a single play from Game 1, but it illustrates how Smart (or Rozier) instinctively would react as IT4 swings the ball. Bradley might have shot a three there or simply kicked it back to Thomas for the reset, but Smart is a bulldozer. Any crack in the defense and he's moving forward. Jonas Jerebko slips the screen and Smart finds him for a lay up.
And just a quick note about Kelly Olynyk potentially missing Game 2 with the strained shoulder. Marc D'Amico hit it right on the head with his article yesterday proclaiming Tyler Zeller as "Boston's secret weapon." I don't know how much of a secret Zeller is, but he's definitely a change of pace from KO. Olynyk's contributions can be a little unpredictable at times. He's occasionally shooting from behind the arc or driving or taking a mismatch in the post.
Zeller is more of a known commodity: a pick-and-roll/pop seven footer that's nifty around the rim, runs rim to rim, and can hit a fifteen-footer. In his own words:
"If someone like Mike Scott is guarding me then obviously [taking jumpers] is playing to his strengths, so I want to get to the rim as much as possible," he said. "But if you've got somebody like (Al) Horford, who wants to sit off a little more, you've got to be able to knock that (jumper) down."
Zeller also believes that he could make an impact in the transition game. He is regarded as one of the top rim-runners among NBA big men, and his end-to-end speed could present a challenge to Horford and the Hawks.
"Hopefully running transition offense kind of pushes their conditioning a little bit or gets them to play a little faster," Zeller said. "And on defense, just being able to run back and hopefully help my teammates before my guy gets down the floor."
With Bradley out and Smart (and possibly Rozier) in, Zeller could be a better big even if Olynyk was healthy. The Celtics were a dismal 8 for 28 in the mid-range and 11 for 35 from the behind the arc Saturday night. Atlanta's defense is geared to keep teams out of the paint, but if Boston has any chance of making this a series, they might have to attack one of the Hawks' strengths. Plus, attacking the paint more could lead to more open looks at sideline threes and cutters running towards the rim.
To be clear, this isn't a referendum on Bradley vs. Smart & Rozier. These are just the circumstances that the Celtics are dealing with and the options that Brad Stevens has at his disposal. He's been really good all year figuring out what personnel pairings work best, and while Avery's absence creates a missing element from the team's chemistry that they've been perfecting since the pre-season, this could be the perfect opportunity for some spontaneous combustion as the team looks to go home with a split.