By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON — After Isaiah Thomas erupted for 53 points in Game 2, the Washington Wizards decided they weren’t going to let the All-Star point guard beat them. That strategy worked for two games in Washington, as the Wizards successfully clamped down on Thomas defensively by throwing several bodies his way, in effect daring someone else on the C’s offense to make them pay for their double teams.
Avery Bradley refused to let that tactic pay off in Game 5. The 6-foot-3 shooting guard finally took advantage of his open looks and erupted for 25 of his playoff career-high 29 points in the first half, helping set the tone from the opening tip in a runaway 123-101 win by the Celtics. The victory put Boston back in the driver’s seat with a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series, thanks to Bradley and the rest of Isaiah’s supporting cast rising to the challenge.
Prior to Game 5, the Eastern Conference Semifinals had been largely a struggle for Avery Bradley. The veteran guard had been slowed down by a pair of hip pointers and his production dropped off in response to the injury. The 25-year-old did not shoot better than 37 percent from the field in any of the first four games and managed to muster just 12 total points in Washington during a pair of blowout losses.
“I knew that I hadn’t been playing to my ability on the offensive end the last two games,” Bradley said. “To this team, I wanted to bring it my all. I wanted to take the open shots that were there and make plays for guys. That’s what I tried to do tonight.”
That dramatic decline from a player who averaged a career-best 16.3 ppg during the regular season left the Celtics’ offense looking vulnerable heading into Game 5. Thomas (18 points, team-high 9 assists) never gave up on his backcourt mate though and happily kept feeding Bradley the ball as the Wizards honed in on him for the third straight game.
“He played like he’s supposed to,” Thomas said of Bradley. “He played through it. It’s the playoffs and we need him to play that way. He put his injuries aside and laced his shoes up and played. He was the key to this game. On both ends of the floor, offensively and defensively, he did it all and we need that from him, especially in Game 6 we’re gonna need that from him. I’m proud of him. I told him before the game I believe in him and he’s gonna have a big game, and he did.”
Bradley was nearly perfect early on, scoring 14 first quarter points on 6-of-8 shooting, which enabled the hosts to jump all over the Wizards early with a double-digit lead. Boston didn’t lift their foot off the gas for the final three quarters as the Wizards got no closer than 12 points the rest of the way thanks to Bradley’s hot shooting (12-of-19 from field) and some balanced scoring by the rest of the starting lineup. Jae Crowder, Al Horford, Thomas and Bradley all scored 18+ points in the win, making the Wizards’ defensive gamble (slowing Thomas down) a losing bet.
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We’ve seen this version of Bradley this postseason (against the Bulls), but his re-emergence against the Wizards changes the complexion of this matchup. Many speculated his hip injuries could limit his production as the series continued, but he promptly put those fears to rest on Wednesday night.
“He was really locked in, and you could just tell from the beginning he was ready to go,” Horford admitted. “And Avery was amazing tonight. I’m just really blown away to see how good he was.”
The last time Bradley had a chance to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, he was stuck watching on the sidelines after a shoulder injury ended his postseason prematurely in 2012. With another chance to get to that stage on Friday night in Washington looming, the longest tenured member of the Celtic knows what is at stake.
“You have to make the most of this opportunity,” Bradley explained. “I wish I could rewind. I always tell myself I wish I could have played through my injuries when I had my shoulder surgery. To be back here again is a blessing. We have to take full advantage of this.
“The next game we have to come out and play with purpose. It’s a great opportunity to make the Eastern Conference finals. We have to understand that. And we’re one game away.”
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.