Avery Bradley and Jeff Green Could be Difference Makers for the Boston Celtics in a Matchup with the Miami HeatOn June 5th, 2012 the Boston Celtics pulled out a huge Game 5 win over the Miami Heat to go up three games to two in the Eastern Conference Finals. While I felt like I was living and dying with each bounce of the ball in that game, there were two people who were watching even closer than I was.I remember following the Twitter conversation between Jeff Green (@UncleJeffGreen) and Avery Bradley (@Avery_Bradley.) They were discussing how hard it was to have to watch without being able to contribute to the Celtics’ cause. There were all types of tweets going back and forth between them on the order of “Man I wanna play so bad” or “@unclejeffgreen yea this sucks bro.” But my favorite tweet in the exchange came from Bradley, who wrote: Lol I had my jersey on while watching the game .. ;(— Avery Bradley (@Avery_Bradley) June 6, 2012 I could just picture Avery Bradley and Jeff Green in front of the television with their full uniforms on, going crazy every time something happened in the game that they KNEW that they themselves could have influenced. And here’s the kicker: These two players COULD have been the difference makers in that series. And not in a simplistic “add talent and team gets better” kind of way. We all know it just doesn’t work like that in real life. No, Bradley and Green change the dynamic of a potential Boston Celtics v. Miami Heat rematch in very specific ways that really improves the odds that this current Celtics team can send Miami packing in this year’s playoffs.In 2012 the Heat and Celtics had played to a draw through four games in the series, despite injuries on both sides. The Heat were minus Chris Bosh, while the Celts were missing Green (heart), Bradley (shoulders) and Chris Wilcox (heart.) Boston also even had Paul Pierce (knee) and Ray Allen (ankle) struggling through injuries of their own. The Heat got an attenuated Bosh back for Game 5, but it wasn’t until Games 6 and 7 where Bosh was closer to full speed. His sudden addition to the series was what eventually tilted the result in Miami’s favor.I stated before the start of the series last year that Bradley being out was as big of a loss for the Celtics as Bosh’s absence was to the Heat. I stand by that sentiment: Had Bradley played in those Conference Finals last season, I still believe that Boston beats the Heat regardless of if Bosh played or not. That statement doesn’t seem as strange in Celtic Nation these days as Bradley’s defensive impact has become more obvious, and I maintain that his presence would have changed the way that the Celtics played the Heat last year. More importantly, it will also change what they can do with them THIS season.But let me be clear on exactly how I think Bradley makes such a difference. He’s not a defensive anchor per se, which is to say that he isn’t the centerpiece of the Celtics’ defense nor the one providing the most help defense when teammates get beaten. But his ridiculous on-ball defensive skills pay a lot of dividends for a playoff team. For one thing, if he guards a point guard his full-court pressure takes time off the shot clock and shortens how long the opponent has to run a play. For another, his ability to get over and through picks is a huge detriment to an opponent’s ability to run the pick-and-roll. But in my opinion the most important contribution that Bradley gives to this Celtics’ defense is his ability to provide harassing defense to the opponent’s best backcourt player WITHOUT REQUIRING A LOT OF (any?) HELP! This is massive, especially against a team like the Heat or the Thunder that has multiple high-volume scorers that can each break down a defense.[caption id="attachment_58551" align="alignright" width="240"] Avery Bradley's defense has been a huge part of the Boston Celtics recent success.[/caption]A big reason why the C’s have been the best defense in the NBA over the last six years is that they run a smart scheme that is intended to take away an opponent’s primary scoring option, and they have the best help defender of this generation as the anchor to this defense. This formula makes the Celtics killer in the postseason against unipolar offenses with a single focal point, such as the 2008 (and even 2010) Lakers, the 2008 and 2010 Cavs, the 2010 Magic, and the 2011 Knicks. No matter what position the stud opponent plays, no matter how relatively strong (or not strong) the defender assigned to that stud is, the Garnett-led help defense can take any one player down a few notches. The defense is also lethal against teams with multipolar offenses that don’t feature a single transcendent engine like the ’08 Hawks and Pistons, or the ’12 Hawks and Sixers.However, where the defense can have trouble is if there are multiple transcendent offensive players on the opposing team, if the opposing superstar can draw KG into giving so much help that the other players on the offense can get off, or (as age has advanced) if the opponents can cause Garnett to have to spend so much energy on defense that he burns out. When this team has lost (games or series) in the postseason for the past five years, you can usually trace the issue down to an opponent that could provide more offensive pressure than Boston’s defense was capable of stopping.That is EXACTLY what happened against the Heat last year after Bosh returned. Ray Allen was really hobbling on his ankle. And Pierce, though doing slightly better, was also struggling with his knee. They physically just couldn’t do much to slow down either Wade or LeBron, respectively, without a lot of help. The strategy, then, was for Garnett to give Ray so much help on defense that it really cut into Wade’s production and then figure that LeBron couldn’t beat the rest of the Celtics by himself. Let’s call this approach the KG one-man zone. And this was a winning strategy, as evidenced by the Celtics 3-2 lead through five games. But once Bosh returned, he was enough of an offensive threat that he could make the Celtics pay if Garnett just completely left him in the way that he was able to completely leave his other Heat assignments. This, ultimately, was the difference in Game 7 when Bosh unexpectedly started draining treys that were wide open because Garnett was so committed to helping on Wade.Let’s take a closer look at what Wade has done against the Celtics in the LeBron era with a quick chart:Pts FGA FG% FTA2011 Postseason Ray, standard
11.62011 - 2013 reg. season no Bradley
10.52012 Postseason hurt Ray, KG zone
6.12011 - 2013 reg. season w/ Bradley
5.0As you can see, despite Ray hobbling, the KG one-man-zone on Wade had a huge impact on his scoring and put the Celtics in position to win until Bosh returned and took advantage. But with Bradley in the fold, the C’s have held down Wade’s numbers even more than they were able to in the 2012 Playoffs but with their standard defense (e.g. not a KG one-man-zone) because Bradley can attenuate Wade’s production without requiring nearly as much help. Thus, Garnett is able to spend more time staying home on Bosh, and historically he has always been able to limit Bosh with his defense. He also doesn’t have to expend quite as much energy on defense, which is huge for the team’s offense.When the Heat offense is limited to LeBron’s individual brilliance with below average contributions from his two co-stars, the team becomes vulnerable. They’re still by no means an easy out, but it becomes a battle at that point and a question of whether the Celtics can produce enough offense to win games.[caption id="attachment_58552" align="alignleft" width="249"] Jeff Green could help the Boston Celtics against the Miami Heat.[/caption]And it is here that our other forlorn tweeter from last season comes in. Jeff Green provides three very important functions that were dramatically missed against the Heat last year: 1.) A plus defender capable of spending quality minutes on LeBron, 2.) A plus offensive player capable of acting as the centerpiece for possessions at a time, and 3.) A small-ball power forward that can match-up when the Heat play LeBron at the four. These are three elements that are extremely valuable for the Celtics against the Heat because they serve to keep Pierce and Garnett fresher while allowing the Celtics to have their five best players on the court no matter how the Heat line up.The main difference in the high-end talent of the two teams, at this stage of their careers, is that the Heat’s best players can play for 40+ minutes at full throttle with little loss in ability. Garnett and Pierce can give you 35+ minutes in the postseason, but if they are going all out then they start losing starch by late in the fourth quarter on both ends. This was exemplified in the 2011 playoffs after Wade dislocated Rondo’s elbow. The Celtics stayed in the games against the Heat through three-plus quarters even with Rondo playing at about 60% because the other vets picked up the slack. But to do so they were gassed in the fourth, and you started seeing basic execution mistakes and flat jumpers as the fatigue took its toll. Plus, let’s be real, LeBron was, and still is, just too much for Pierce to be asked to handle one-on-one. Pierce’s offensive numbers against LeBron during this era have always dipped when they matchup, even in 2008, because LeBron is just a monster to defend and he’s a great defender in his own right to boot.Enter Jeff Green. Green is as tall as LeBron, an excellent athlete, and has developed an edge to his game (on both offense and defense) that I never saw from him before. Green has proven in his career that he can play 35+ minutes on a nightly basis, that he can be an upper-mid teens scorer when in that role, and that he has the youthful energy to be able to burn hot at both ends of the court on any given night. No one can go at LeBron one-on-one without help, but Green would allow the Celtics to put at least as much pressure on LeBron as they have in recent playoffs. BUT without having to burn out the Captain to do it! Remember in the 2012 playoffs when the squad had to put Brandon Bass on LeBron in several key junctures because Pierce was either in foul trouble or gassed? No more mismatches like that. Instead, the Celtics can run out a lineup featuring Jason Terry/Bradley/Pierce/Green/Garnett with plus defenders on each of the Heat’s main options that also has shooters at all five positions. And it also allows Pierce and Terry to operate without having to spend themselves against LeBron and Wade.The upside of the Celtics this postseason is ultimately dependent upon how good Garnett and Pierce can be. But with their unique combinations of youth, athleticism, aggression and talent, Bradley and Green act as the perfect facilitators to maximize what Garnett and Pierce can do. The “unnamed scout” who said that the Celtics had no shot against Miami failed to address this at all, and his analysis/conclusions were really weak because of it. Those that decry that without Rondo the Celtics don’t have anyone to make the Heat blink also really miss this point. Garnett and Pierce, last season, showed that they still have it in them carry this squad to huge playoff wins. And now that Green and Bradley can put their uniforms on and actually play in the games, instead of watching in agony and tweeting about it, the Celtics are in a very strong position with the ability to take out any team in the postseason. Including and especially the Miami Heat.