BOSTON — The texts came in to Avery Bradley’s phone before tonight’s Game 5, from his team’s star player to his team’s television play-by-play broadcaster. After a week of struggles, tonight was going to be his night. The Celtics were going to be one step closer to their championship goals because Bradley was going to find the form that has made him one of the best two-way players in the league.
Those texts were spot on, and Bradley, along with the supporting cast for the Boston Celtics, were right on point on Wednesday night from the start.
The fast start the Celtics got off to in their 123-101 victory over the Washington Wizards was spurred on by Bradley’s scorching first quarter, as he lit up Washington for 14 points as Boston raced to a 16-4 lead and never looked back. He scored them in a variety of ways, from two three-pointers to two breakaway dunks to a pull-up jumper to a finger roll. All of that added up to Bradley scoring more points in the quarter than he did in Games 3 and 4 combined, when the Celtics were humbled in both games in Washington and forced the series to be a best-of-three.
The series was effectively untied again well before the final buzzer tonight, and Bradley was the one who made sure of it.
“I think the most important thing for us is getting a great start,” said Bradley, who scored 29 points – 25 in the first half – in the victory. “The great start got us going on both ends of the floor and we have to be that type of team. We have yet to get a good start this entire series. Tonight we were able to start the right way. The game’s in our control and I was happy with the way we played tonight.”
Bradley, who’s been playing through hip pointers afflicting both of his hips, was bound to play better at home than in the games in Washington, as most role players end up doing in the postseason. But it didn’t hurt that he continued to get reminders and encouragement that he was due for a breakout performance from those close to him.
“Isaiah [Thomas] texted me before the game, (Celtics TV broadcaster) Mike Gorman texted me and they told me they felt like it was going to be a big game for me. My mindset was just to come out and be aggressive. I wanted to make those guys work on both ends of the floor. I know that I haven’t been playing to my ability on the offensive end the last two games and, for this team, I wanted to bring my all. I wanted to take the open shots that were there and make plays for guys and that is what I tried to do tonight.”
It was a much different story on Sunday, when Thomas publicly lamented after the Celtics’ Game 4 loss that his teammates had a crisis of confidence, claiming that he saw many of his teammates hang their heads after missed shots during the defeat. As it was on Sunday, Washington made sure to force the ball out of Thomas’ hands tonight by double-teaming him on almost every touch on the offensive end. It took a couple of games, but the Celtics’ adjustments to the Wizards trying to ice Thomas paid dividends, with Bradley being the main beneficiary. Celtics head coach Brad Stevens stressed the importance of not just increased scoring from those outside of Thomas, but making the right plays to lead to those baskets.
“That’s going to always be important, but it’s equally as important for everybody else to do their small role in that,” said Stevens. “Whether it’s opening Avery up by cutting, whether it’s a roll by a big, whether it’s Isaiah quickly reading it and getting rid of it and getting it to the next guy so he can make the play for them. I just thought we played real purposefully and I had no idea that Avery had 25 at halftime and I had no idea that Isaiah had one field goal until I looked at the stat sheet, because we were making the right plays. And that’s really all that you’re looking for.”
It was the near-perfect game plan, but one that Bradley knows has to continue if the Celtics’ playoff run is to continue.
“It can’t just be Isaiah Thomas every single night,” said Bradley. “If we are able to understand that and he’s able to believe in us, I fell like the sky is the limit for us because we have a lot of players that are capable of having big games for us on the offensive end.”
The Celtics also have players who are difference makers on the defensive end, Bradley included. Bradley specifically mentioned Marcus Smart’s performance as a driving force in tonight’s win, as he had 11 rebounds – all of the defensive end – while chipping in with six assists and two steals.
“The plays that Marcus Smart made tonight, he inspired our team,” said Bradley. “He inspired me to go out there and play even harder: diving on the ball, talking. We were even getting into it at halftime because everyone was into the game. But we knew that we all had the same goal and that was to go out there and give our all and finish with a W and that’s what we did.”
Boston got the win with Thomas being not just a distributor, but also playing the role of a screener, helping his teammates get open looks at the basket. He wasn’t necessarily a decoy, but the burden of scoring in bunches was lifted off his diminutive shoulders for one night as Boston’s supporting cast rose to the occasion.
More than anything, Thomas’ modest numbers tonight – 18 points, nine assists – owes itself to the maturity the All-Star point guard has shown in trusting his teammates and not trying to shoot his way out of a slump.
“Earlier in my career, I probably would have just kept forcing it, trying to keep going,” said Thomas, who scored 53 points the last time these two teams met at TD Garden in Game 2. “But now, I’m seeing the game differently. I watch a lot of film, and I see what they’re doing to me. They almost literally have three guys on me, and there’s no way that I could just keep going like that, so I got to change things up until things open up.”
The trick the Celtics have to pull off now is to have the role players carry this play down the Eastern seaboard for Game 6 in Washington, where they’ve been a shell of themselves in two humiliating losses to the Wizards.
“I think we just got to stay in the moment,” said Thomas. “We know what is at stake, we know it’s going to be a hostile environment, we know it’s going to be tough to get a win out there, but if we lock in like we did tonight, limit our turnovers, limit their transitions, that gives us the best chance of winning that game. We did a hell of a job tonight, from the first guy to the last guy.”
Boston is going to need the first guy, the last guy, and everyone in between once more on Friday night.