A few plays earlier Kyrie Irving scorched Isaiah Thomas from the right corner. Al Horford shifted over to help, but Irving elevated at the perfect moment. Contorting his body around the help defense parallel with the baseline on the right side, he extended his arm and finished an unworldly reverse layup to tie the game.
All Lebron James had to do was watch. In the biggest moments of the regular season he can set up and watch Irving decimate one-on-one match-ups like he did to win the NBA Finals. It was not that kind of night for Cleveland Wednesday though.
Against a fully loaded Celts team, Boston was able to run its most versatile defensive lineup in crunch time and with a 101-99 lead the switch Cleveland set put Bradley in Irving’s vicinity from the wing. Standing inches from where he scorched Thomas, Irving would probably rather have seen anyone else in the NBA. Bradley had missed 22 of the last 24 games, but this one depended on his defense. Irving hit him with a series of crossover moves, set himself square with the basket with his back turned, and after losing his dribble turned and shot too strong off the back rim.
Avery Bradley on his D: "It's something I take pride in. I love going up against the Kyries, the Russell Westbrooks, all of those guys."— Brian Robb (@CelticsHub) March 2, 2017
A second-chance shot proved futile. While short themselves; missing Kevin Love, J.R. Smith and impending signee, Andrew Bogut, who avoided a mass of boos Wednesday, the Cavaliers succumbed to a complete effort by a Boston team that has rarely seen itself as healthy as it was in the win.
It’s a bad cliche but these Celtics work like a puzzle on both sides of the court. A sensational stretch of facilitation by Smart surged them through a massive stretch without one of their best players. In Bradley’s absence he was putting up 12 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 2.3 steals per game running the bench unit over 23 games. Beyond his numbers; the production of Olynyk, James Young, Gerald Green and more saw spikes under his playmaking.
Tonight was different though. Bradley may be the missing link that now, put back into place, makes the Celtics legitimate championship contenders. His return makes their effort as a team as complete as it can be. There was a cohesiveness across the entire roster in the Cavs win that hasn’t been seen at this level all year.
This may seem like a given. Any team is better with everybody playing. The Celts are different in that their effort depends far more on a top-to-bottom impact within a structured system rather than just waiting on one player to save them, even though it looks (and is) that way with Thomas sometimes.
Thomas had his heroics, but without the Bradley stop it would have meant nothing.
Everything came together, like a completed puzzle. Whether that board game is pretty enough to push past a Monopoly of a Cavaliers team remains to be seen, but they showed when it all falls into place Boston can take advantage of breaks that swing their way. After the result of the trade deadline that’s all you can ask for, maximizing the talent in place.