The Celtics won Game 5 against Philadelphia convincingly Monday night, grabbing hold of the series at a crucial pivot point. It’s their series to win Wednesday in Philadelphia, or allowing for a blip, Saturday at home in Game 7.
There was a jovial mood around TD Garden Monday night. Brandon Bass set a career playoff-high with 27 points, and fans got to see Bass flash his shy smile on the podium in the postgame press conference. The Celtics won by 16 points, and fan-favorite Greg Stiemsma had a nice game with 10 points on 5-of-5 shooting. Fans were in such a good mood that they serenaded former fan-favorite Brian Scalabrine — who was working for Comcast — with chants of “Scal-a-brine” while the game was still going on.
There was a lot to feel good about after the game, but some bad news before it cast a shadow on the Celtics’ playoff chances. Avery Bradley sat out Game 5 with a shoulder injury, and his status going forward is uncertain. The Celtics may have to go parts of, or maybe even the whole, playoffs without him.
Not to throw a wet blanket at the party, but there should be an occasional reality check to go with the game-by-game, back-and-forth emotions that fans feel after every playoff win and loss. Though it may seem like the Celtics should be up 6-0 in this series, the fact is they’ve struggled to take even a one-game lead, and they’ll need to win another game on the road to prevent the series from going the maximum seven. It’s been anything but easy.
There are reasons to suggest it won’t get any easier. Before the game, Celtics coach Doc Rivers gave a sobering assessment of Bradley’s injury.
“The strength just won’t return right now,” said Rivers. “It’s pretty bad. We’ve got to still keep winning, obviously. He’ll play games I think. This is probably how it’s going to be from this point on. I think he’ll play a game and miss a couple.”
Despite the win, the evidence that the Celtics will miss Bradley going forward was on display in Game 5. Ray Allen, Bradley’s replacement, had just 5 points in 33 minutes. Rivers has called him “limited”. There’s no question that he is. Next in line are guards Mickael Pietrus and Keyon Dooling, who combined for 3 points in 29 minutes. The production after Bradley doesn’t just drop off, it plunges.
On the surface, Bradley was averaging just 6 points per game in the series, so his loss could be viewed as a minor one. But a deeper look at the numbers reveals how much Bradley means to the team. The Celtics are 35 points better in the series with Bradley on the floor. In a 9-point loss Friday night, Bradley was plus-12 in 27 minutes of playing time. He was plus-18 in Game 2, when the Celtics lost by 1.
If you’re dismissive of plus/minus — and you wouldn’t be wrong — the eye test should tell you just how much better the Celtics are with Bradley on the floor. Allen can’t guard anybody with his bum ankle, and his man is beating him constantly. That leads to a chain reaction of Celtics helping, getting out of position, and allowing easy baskets. The Sixers scored 50 points in the first half for just that reason.
Matchups are also a problem. Bradley gives the Celtics one sticky defender to latch onto the other team’s best perimeter player. In this series, the Celtics have no one to match up with Philadelphia’s Evan Turner. It hasn’t burned the Celtics too much so far, but Turner had 11 points and 10 rebounds in Game 5. It would have been worse if Turner made more than 5 of 13 shots. If the Celtics have no one to match up with Turner, can you imagine if they get through this series and then have to match up with either Dwyane Wade or Paul George?
“We lose our defensive captain, really,” Rivers said of losing Bradley. “It takes away the ability to put Rondo on different guys to give him a rest at times. To ask Rondo to do that and run the team is very difficult.”
Finally there’s the issue of rotations. The Celtics can’t employ their small lineup without Bradley. The three-guard set was what allowed this whole magical end-of-season run to happen in the first place. Without Bradley, the Celtics are forced to go big or risk being totally ineffective with Dooling or Pietrus. Going big worked in Game 5 because Greg Stiemsma made all five of his shots from the field and because Bass scored 27. But that doesn’t make up for the fact that the Celtics have lost their most effective lineup going forward. Stiemsma has been a liability on defense at times this series.
The Celtics should win this series, with or without Bradley. But as they go deeper into the playoffs, they’d better hope for his return. Rivers said Bradley will be limited until the offseason, playing one game for every two he sits out. As long as that holds, expect the Celtics to be similarly inconsistent.