CLEVELAND — There’s something about the city of Cleveland that seems to bring out the best in Avery Bradley.
Maybe it’s the challenge of defending Kyrie Irving. Maybe it’s the opportunity for Bradley and the Boston Celtics to measure themselves against the class of the East. Whatever the reason, Bradley has saved some of his top recent performances for visits to Northeast Ohio.
So maybe it should come as no surprise that, in the new biggest moment of the Celtics’ season, coach Brad Stevens scribbled up a play designed to put the ball in Bradley’s hands. And given a clean look at the basket, maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Bradley rattled home a 3-pointer with 0.1 seconds remaining in Sunday’s Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals to lift the Celtics to a rather improbable 111-108 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena.
Bradley has produced two go-ahead field goals in the final 10 seconds of games in his NBA career. They’ve both come in Cleveland over the past 15 months.
With Sunday’s winner, Bradley narrowed Boston’s deficit to 2-1 in this best-of-seven series. Game 4 is Tuesday night in Cleveland.
Bradley was left embarrassed by the way the Cavaliers steamrolled the Celtics in Game 2 in Boston. As the team got on the plane to travel to Cleveland, Isaiah Thomas texted his teammates to let them know his season was over after aggravating a hip injury in the first half of Friday’s loss.
Even Bradley, the most optimistic player in Boston’s locker room, had to admit the outlook on Boston’s season looked bleak at that point. Cleveland entered Sunday’s game as a whopping 16.5-point favorite. There was a very real chance the Celtics might end an otherwise spellbinding 2016-17 season with consecutive losses to a Cavaliers team that seemed destined for the NBA Finals.
But Bradley, the longest tenured member of the Celtics, wouldn’t let his team go out like that. Even as he has played through the discomfort of two hip pointers — one on each side suffered in a Round 2 victory over the Washington Wizards — Bradley refuses to let the Celtics go quietly this postseason.
Just ask LeBron James.
“You almost knew that that shot [Bradley’s winner] was going to go in,” said James. “It was like, you already knew. As soon as the ball went out his hands, you kind of knew that shot was going to go in because of how the game was just played throughout the second half.”
Bradley downplayed his part in the sequence, suggesting the credit belonged to Stevens, whose whiteboard produced a series of clutch late-game baskets.
“I think it was the play called by Brad Stevens,” said Bradley. “He did a great job of putting us in the right position, forcing them to have to help and not be able to switch. Al Horford made a great screen and Marcus Smart made an even better pass, and I was able to knock down a shot. It was a great play by Brad.”
Inbounding with 10.7 seconds to play in a tied game, Smart, who started in place of Thomas and produced 27 points on seven 3-pointers, dribbled down the clock with James defending. On the opposite side of the floor, Bradley and teammate Jae Crowder did a little do-si-do, and when Cleveland’s JR Smith botched a switch, it allowed Bradley to race free on the left wing. With Horford holding up Tristan Thompson like an offensive lineman, Bradley caught Smart’s pass with about four seconds to play and got a clean look at the basket.
With nearly the entire arena on its feet, Bradley’s 3-point attempt hit the left side of the rim and rolled off the back of the rim. The ball somehow shot straight up and kissed off the back of the rim. Nudging the glass just enough, the ball bounced forward again and caught the front rim before settling through the cylinder with just a tenth of a second remaining.
On the baseline, Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren and co-owner Steve Pagliuca celebrated the fortuitous rattle. Boston’s bench did the same, and even Stevens took pride in taking the clock down to 0.1 seconds.
“Thank God [the ball is] bouncing on the rim because that’s taking time,” said Stevens. “If it goes in or doesn’t go in, they have a timeout left. We wanted to go at 6 seconds, and the hope was that they’d have less than one [second] if they did get the ball. So when it bounced around, I was actually hoping it went in, obviously, but not completely disappointed that it was bouncing up there.”
The Celtics trailed by as much as 18 in the first half of Sunday’s game, and then they fell behind 77-56 with 6:39 left in the third quarter. It was the unexpected combination of Smart and Jonas Jerebko (10 points and plus-22 in plus/minus over 12:32 of playing time) that spearheaded Boston’s feverish second-half charge.
A closer look at all that went right for the Celtics and what went wrong for the Cavaliers to close Game 3 of the Conference Finals pic.twitter.com/4Fu5WqhSde
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 22, 2017
Bradley finished with 20 points, on 8 of 23 shooting, four assists and three rebounds over a team-high 42 minutes.
Irving had an excellent night (10 of 15 shooting, 29 points) but was a minus-16 in 21 minutes of second-half floor time.
The 26-year-old Bradley, the last member of the Celtics team to have played during the most recent Big Three era, admitted it was hard to stomach how Game 2 played out.
“It was embarrassing,” Bradley said. “I know everyone leaving the arena after last game, we were pretty down. But once we were able to get together [Saturday], we decided that we’re just going to go out and play hard, and whatever happens, happens. We’re going to go play with our backs against the wall, come out swinging.”
“We’re going to go and play as hard as we can. We’re going to be the toughest team,” he added. “We’re going to battle for the loose balls. We’re going to play hard consistently the entire game. We wanted to be that team. That was our mindset. We never counted ourselves out.
“And we’re going to continue to play that way throughout the series.”
The Celtics, once seemingly on the verge of what would have been an insurmountable 3-0 deficit, now have a chance to even the series with Tuesday’s Game 4.
It would seem the Cavaliers are still in control, but Boston’s players were energized by Sunday’s victory. And remember again that Cleveland brings out the best in Bradley.
Bradley has quietly been spectacular this postseason. While Thomas battled his emotions, Bradley emerged as the MVP of Boston’s first-round victory over the Chicago Bulls. For much of that series, Bradley outplayed All-Star Jimmy Butler, the player many Celtics fans lusted over at the February trade deadline.
In Round 2, Bradley embraced the challenge of defending Wizards guard John Wall. Despite all his success in that endeavor, it was Wall making the clutch 3-pointer in the final seconds of Game 6 to force a Game 7 showdown.
Bradley will soon enter the final year of a four-year, $ 32 million extension he signed with Boston in 2014. Bradley could reach unrestricted free agency at the same time as Thomas, and it seems unlikely the Celtics could retain both (especially with Smart a potential restricted free agent that summer).
These are decisions that don’t need to be made immediately but have certainly been pondered by Boston’s front office. The Celtics see a real value in Bradley’s versatile skill set.
The Celtics will need Smart to step up his play on Tuesday. Boston could use another boost from Jerebko. And it wouldn’t hurt if Stevens keeps scribbling up some easy buckets.
“I think that one of the good things about this team is we’re able to believe in whatever Brad draws up,” said Bradley. “If it’s a good play, bad play, whatever it is, we all believe in it. I think that always helps, because you’re able to just read and react after that.
“One of the plays that he drew up when Jonas Jerebko hit [a late] shot, it was for me to lay the ball up. But it was a play that I knew that if they helped, Jonas would be wide open, and he was able to knock down his shot. Those are all plays that Brad makes, and then it’s our job to go out there and make sure that we make the next right play.”