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By Mark Murphy
It’s unclear whether Rajon Rondo was amused a year ago when opponents started to exalt Avery Bradley at his expense, but the Celtics point guard can smile now, probably out of relief that his fellow starter will soon return and ease a significant buildup of pressure.
Many opposing point guards had an interesting take on that moment last season when Rondo, rested up, came back on the floor to replace his young backup. This was before Ray Allen’s deteriorating right ankle made it necessary for Bradley to start.
“He’s the best defensive guard in the league, hands down. Nobody else is like him,” Rondo said of Bradley Friday. “The league will see soon. Guys on other teams are already talking about him to me.”
Rondo’s eyes crinkled as he broke into a half-smile. He thought back to last season’s comments.
“A couple of guys last year had things to say,” he said. “It’s kind of funny. (Bradley) would finally get out of the game, and I would come in, and they would almost seem relieved — I don’t know if that was an insult to me, or just a credit to the defensive player that he is.”
Perhaps Rondo’s good humor is stoked by one absolute belief concerning Bradley.
“We’re going to be a completely different team, just with one player coming back,” said Rondo, whose frustration and desire for a change in the Celtics’ 13-13 start couldn’t be more feverish.
And then there’s this corollary to the last comment: “I think (Bradley is) the X Factor. He’s going to be the key to why we win the championship. He brings a lot to the team in terms of intangibles, the way he cuts offensively. His pressure defensively is going to raise everyone else’s pressure. His defense is going to make us a lot better.”
No one will benefit more than the point guard, of course.
Rondo has made the first (2010, ’11) and second (2009, ’12) fives twice each on the past four NBA all-defensive teams, but he is a center fielder with a rare knack for playing the ball. Asked to keep an opponent out of the paint, Rondo often gets beat. Straight-up stops, instead, are Bradley’s domain.
Asked how Bradley’s targeted Jan. 2 return from shoulder injuries will help him, Rondo again brightened.
“It takes a lot of pressure off of me,” he said. “I won’t have to go through 50 pick-and-rolls a game. Maybe it will be 25 now. We can switch him over to pressure the ball, and I can play the passing lanes, which I do best anyway. I think I’ll be able to rebound better, and I won’t be as tired coming off those pick-and-rolls. Getting bumped, getting hit by those bigs, and having it take a toll on my body the entire game can be tough.
“I think it’s going to help me a lot. He can play the point, too.”
Ah yes, the minutes burden. Rondo came out of Friday’s overtime loss to the Bucks averaging 38 minutes per game — 10th most in the league. Like virtually every other NBA player on the floor that much, Rondo needs extra time after games to treat the pain in his hamstrings, ankles and chronically sore back.
Drawing the opposing point guard every night — and the NBA is experiencing a point guard boom — inflames the impact from those minutes.
“Yeah. That’s exactly right,” said Rondo. “(Bradley) knows his role. He wants the best offensive player. I do, too, but I have a lot more mileage on it than he does, and he’s better at it. I love playing with a guy who wants the challenge, accepts the challenge and can get it done.
“You’re talking about a guy who is always about defense,” he said. “Other guys think offense, offense, but he has a real talent for playing defense. Nobody in this league has that talent like he does. He’s a physical guard, and he’s going to bring a lot of physical play to our guard play as a team.”
Once Bradley returns after his recovery from double shoulder surgery, the Celtics will once again have a player with a truly rare skill.
Guards aren’t supposed to apply successful full-court pressure for an entire game. Bradley is the exception.
“Consistently, and to the effect he has,” said Rondo. “Other guards can pick up, but when he picks you up he can pick your pocket eight out of 10 times. He doesn’t always get the steal, but you might not get into your offense until 15 (seconds are left on the shot clock), which is good for our defense.”
As Rondo and the Celtics have discovered over the last 26 games, their defense can’t wait much longer for Bradley’s unique brand of help.
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