Despite trailing Boston by as much 16 points midway through the third quarter, the Raptors caught fire late in the game en route to a 114-106 comeback victory at the Canada Air Centre. DeMar DeRozan led the way for Toronto, scoring 30 of his season-high 41 points in the second half.
With Bradley – the Celtics’ best defender – sidelined for a second-straight game due to a right achilles injury, all Boston could do was helplessly watch DeRozan turn what looked to be a sure win into yet another loss to a contender.
Talk about disheartening.
Ever since a Marcus Smart jumper gave the Celtics a 16-point lead with 5:05 left in the third quarter, DeRozan just couldn’t be stopped while leading the Raptors to victory. He shot 9-of-14 from the field and 6-of-7 from the charity stripe for the remainder of the game, as Boston simply had no answer for him.
He scored on pull-up jumpers. He scored on fade-ways in the post. He scored on layups after blowing by defenders. The pick-and-roll left him with mismatches on Isaiah Thomas or Amir Johnson, and the fast break gave him wide-open lanes to either score or get fouled.
Nothing, nor no one, gave this guy any real trouble.
Now, it’s hard to play the “what-if” game and definitively say one or another thing would happen, but what if Bradley played the game? Would he have slowed DeRozan down?
Celtics coach Brad Stevens surely would have stuck the NBA All-Defensive First Team player on whatever hot hand was keeping the Raptors alive on Tuesday, and that was DeRozan. Yet, both Bradley and DeRozan are guards, so Bradley probably would’ve been defending him from the start anyway.
That’s what happened in the first meeting between these two teams on December 9, as Bradley helped keep DeRozan to 24 points on 9-of-25 shooting (36 percent). Considering that DeRozan finished Tuesday’s game with 41 points on 16-of-29 shooting (55.2 percent), Bradley’s work on DeRozan would’ve been an incredible upgrade.
Of course, it’s tough to confidently say that DeRozan wouldn’t have gone off late in the game if Bradley played, as he was still guarded by talented defenders in Smart and Jae Crowder. Yet, neither Smart nor Crowder are better defenders than Bradley.
Maybe he could’ve prevented DeRozan from getting the ball as much as he did, forcing other Raptors to make plays. Maybe he could’ve forced an extra turnover or two while the Raptors went on a 23-6 run to close out the game, leaving a four-point swing that would’ve given the Celtics a better chance at the end. Maybe DeRozan wouldn’t have gotten the 13 rebounds he did had Bradley been on him, contesting for boards.
Who knows, right?
But even with that unknown aside, there’s still no doubt that the Celtics would’ve fared better on offense down the stretch if Bradley played. Smart performed admirably in his stead with 16 points and 5 assists, but Boston made just one field goal in the last five minutes of the game.
I don’t think it’s even questionable that having Bradley – the Celtics’ second-leading scorer with 18 points per game – would’ve given Boston an offensive boost. Especially in crunch time, when it needed it most.
His range gives Thomas room to drive to the rim. His backdoor cuts often meet Al Horford‘s eye when posting up. The pick-and-roll with Bradley is money around the elbow and let’s not forget his offensive rebounding/tip-ins.
There are just so many ways that Bradley could’ve affected this game in favor of the Celtics on both ends of the floor, and that just seems undeniable.
Would his presence have led to a win? Maybe, maybe not.
But we do know that Bradley makes the Celtics a much better team when he plays, and the Celtics narrowly lost on Tuesday night. Needless to say, Boston will be hoping he’s around come the next time these two teams play.