By Matthew Geagan, CBSBoston

BOSTON (CBS) –  The Celtics defense has re-emerged, doing its best impersonation of the stifling D which Boston threw at the rest of the NBA as soon as Kevin Garnett arrived five years ago.

While Garnett still has plenty to do with the defense’s success, it’s hard to look past what the return of Avery Bradley has done to the squad. Upon his return from a pair of offseason shoulder surgeries last week, the Celtics are 5-1 and haven’t let a team score 100 points. Teams are averaging just 84.8 points against the Celtics in that six-game span, and for the season they have climbed into the top 10 in regards to points allowed, ranking eighth at 96.2 points per game.

His teammates point to him as the catalyst for the recent turnaround, but the humble Bradley will tell you he’s just doing what is asked. If that means draping himself all over the likes of J.R. Smith or Carmelo Anthony – as he did phenomenally Monday against the Knicks – or pressuring whoever is bringing the ball up the court, Bradley is more than up to the task.

But the rejuvenated and energetic Celtics defense will face one of its biggest tests Friday night when the Houston Rockets come to town, and Bradley will have his hands full once again.

A head-to-head matchup against James Harden – one of the league’s best scorers – is just the latest task that awaits the third-year guard on Friday night. Not many defenders, or teams, have been able to slow Harden this season, with last year’s Sixth Man of the Year thriving now that he’s a starter. He’s shooting 45 percent from the floor, 36 percent from downtown, and hasn’t scored fewer than 20 points in a game in over a month.

Read: Celtics-Rockets Preview

Harden is averaging 29 points over five games this month, but he hasn’t gone up against a defender like Bradley. On that same note,

Bradley has not really seen anyone quite like Harden since his return, though Monday night’s showdown with Smith and various other

Celtics guard Avery Bradley plays some tight defense on New York Knicks guard JR Smith. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Celtics guard Avery Bradley plays some tight defense on New York Knicks guard JR Smith. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Knicks scorers was a good warm-up. We’ll see how Harden likes a defender practically under his jersey, and if he can still hit those unreal shots with Bradley trying to become his Siamese twin.

Staying on Harden and forcing him to take contested shots or errant passes will be key for the Celtics to pick up their fifth straight win on Friday. While he led the Rockets with 25 points in their 88-79 loss to the Hornets on Wednesday night, Harden also turned the ball over seven times. The Rockets could only muster a season-low 79 points that evening, and keeping them under the century mark is key. Houston is just 3-9 when scoring 98 or fewer points.

Friday night’s game won’t be won by just one player – or by shutting down one player for that matter — as it will take an entire team playing as one unit defensively. But having Bradley around to disrupt Harden, who scored 21 points on 6-for-17 shooting against the C’s last month, will make it hard for Kevin McHale’s squad to get back on track offensively.

It will be Bradley’s hardest test so far in his brief time back on the floor, but given his body of work on the defensive end, he’s more than up to that challenge.


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