Avery Bradley emerging as X-factor for Celtics

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

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The Boston Celtics haven’t made it to the Eastern Conference Finals yet. They still have to win one more game to get there. And it’s becoming evident that for them to do so, they’ll need shooting guard Avery Bradley to step up and be a difference maker on both ends of the court.

It’s been a difficult season for Bradley, who missed 23 games in January and February due to an Achilles injury. Prior to getting hurt, he averaged 18 points per game on 47.5 percent shooting and added 2.1 3s on 41.7 percent shooting, per Basketball-Reference.com. After returning from the injury, he averaged 13.6 points on 35.2 percent shooting from deep and 43.6 percent from the field.

Normally an elite defender — arguably the best ball hawk in the league at his position — he wasn’t quite up to his usual brilliance after the injury, either.

Since the playoffs have started, though, Bradley has been the X factor for the Celtics, as indicated by his splits in wins and losses:

I don’t want to sound all “hot take” here, but it looks like the Celtics’ chances of winning go up when Bradley plays well. According to NBA.com, he shoots 50.5 percent from the field and 43.2 percent from deep in wins and just 33.5 percent in losses. The Celtics are plus-10.6 with him and minus-14.8 without him.

Part of the reason for that is that when he’s hitting his outside shots, it makes it easier for Isaiah Thomas to get penetration for either kick-outs or points. While the two are on the court together, Thomas averages 26.5 points and 7.3 assists per 36 minutes. In losses, those numbers drop to 20.5 and 4.1, and he turns the ball over 5.1 times instead of 3.2. And Thomas’ numbers don’t chance appreciably without Bradley.

Thoms is an electric point guard who has a fantastic ability to create points at the rim. But it gets a whole lot better when he has Bradley knocking down his open shots.

Bradley’s defense has been impeccable, too, as much as it has been ubiquitous.

Here’s a look at defenders who have guarded 50-plus possessions and have allowed fewer than .75 points per possession according to SynergySportsTech.com:

The further a player is up on the chart, the more possessions the player guarded, the further to the right, the fewer points the player surrendered. Three things jump out here:

  1. Only five players have guarded 50 or more possessions and given up fewer points per possession than Bradley.
  2. Of those five players, four are bigs.
  3. None of those five players is the best defender on their respective teams.

It’s a big difference because what all that means is that the quality of player Bradley is guarding is on a different level than the others. In the first round, his primary task was guarding Jimmy Butler. In the second round, it has been John Wall. This is what he’s done when guarding those two players:

That’s arguably the second- and third-best player in the Eastern Conference he has shut down.

If the Celtics do get to the next round, he may have to guard the best. The Celtics don’t have a great shot at beating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but it gets a lot better if Bradley is making his shots while also putting the brakes on James.