By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON — Kyrie Irving is one of the best isolation players in the NBA. The crafty point guard has a terrific handle, along with incredible shot-making ability from all over the court. His skill set makes him one of the toughest covers in the NBA, as well as a key ingredient to the Cavs’ NBA Finals win last season.
Most teams around the league simply don’t have an answer for the 6-foot-3 guard, but the Boston Celtics are one of the few exceptions on that front, thanks to Avery Bradley.
The 26-year-old guard has been on a minutes limit since returning from a strained Achilles earlier this week, but that didn’t stop him from slowing down a red-hot Irving (team-high 28 points) down the stretch just enough to help the Celtics earn a hard fought 103-99 win over the visiting Cavaliers.
Brad Stevens called upon Bradley to play the final three-plus minutes of the contest, despite the fact the shooting guard had been sitting for 15 straight minutes of game action. The long wait did not limit the 26-year-old shooting guard, who not only forced a key miss from Irving in the closing seconds of the one possession but also added a pivotal go-ahead 3-point shot with just over a minute remaining as well.
Ultimately, Bradley finished with a rather unimpressive box score line (11 points and 2 rebounds on 4-of-11 shooting) but the Celtics likely wouldn’t have pulled out the tight affair without his defensive contributions.
“That’s what I play this game for, to go up against the best players,” Bradley said after the game. “I know I haven’t been out there in a while, but hopefully I can still be mentioned for first team all-defense. It’s something I take pride in. Every single chance I get, I love going up against the Kyries, the Russell Westbrooks, all of those guys.”
Stevens deemed Bradley’s defense on Irving as a ‘necessity’ for his team to come out on top.
“Irving is a tremendous scorer. He made shots against everybody tonight. He’s a hard guy to stop,” Stevens added. “But I think that having a guy like Avery out there – you know, good offense usually beats good defense, but Avery certainly makes it as tough as humanly possible when he’s guarding somebody.”
The Celtics had been without that defense for the better part of the past two months, as Bradley exercised extreme caution in his return timetable from his Achilles injury. That patience is already starting to pay off, though, as the six-year veteran is performing at a high level in the wake of an 18-game absence, despite being saddled with a minutes restriction.
“I’m sure he’s sick of his restriction, minutes restriction thing,” Jae Crowder said of Bradley. “But I think soon he’ll be back into the full swing of things. But it’s tough. He just has to stay locked in on the bench. Kudos to him because he had to stay engaged when he’s not playing. It’s one of the tough things you have to do as a professional.”
Bradley’s presence helped improve the Celtics’ record to 17-6 when the team’s opening night starting five is intact. And while it may be another week or so until the long-time Celtic is back at full strength, he showed Wednesday night why the Celtics could be one of the tougher matchups in the East for the Cavaliers come playoff time.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.