is nearing a return from shoulder surgery. (Brian Babineau/Getty Images)
By Rob Mahoney
The Boston Celtics, as is their custom, have made their regular season more challenging than it might have otherwise seemed.
Their defense, which had only once dropped below second in points allowed per possession over the previous five years, ranks 10th (a solid mark, but dreary by Celtics standards). Paul Pierce's value as an every-night scorer is clearly diminished. Rajon Rondo, for all of his playmaking prowess, refuses to apply the pressure necessary to make Boston a more successful offensive team. Kevin Garnett is averaging his fewest minutes per game since his rookie season, despite the fact that the Celtics' second-unit bigs have been a mess defensively. Several of Boston's recent imports are still finding their way and have quite a bit to learn before this team is put to the playoff test.
And yet, there should be little doubt that the Celtics will be the Celtics by season's end, ready to strangle playoff opponents with their defense and make do with whatever offense they can find. It's essentially a tradition at this point for Boston to feel its way blindly through the initial 82, all before ending up at a similar competitive destination.
And here to help them to that endpoint is third-year guard Avery Bradley, who has been kept off the court since May by double shoulder surgery and the subsequent rehabilitation. According to Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe, Bradley is set to return Wednesday against Memphis -- an early-January date very much in line with the reported projections for his recovery.
Adding Bradley helps the Celtics in myriad ways, but it also forces the team to confront the limitations of its complete roster. Even if Boston regains the full extent of its defensive prowess (an effort in which Bradley could certainly help, given his ability to paralyze opposing ball-handlers), the Celtics are still just one of several teams in the East's second tier. They could use another interior defender, they still get a bit wobbly when going to their bench and they aren't likely to recapture the impossibly efficient offensive spark that guided them to the Eastern Conference finals last season. With Bradley back, there will be nothing left to wait for, and no convenient delay by which to shrug off reality. Boston is a good team, and with Bradley back it'll be better. But this group has a lot to figure out if it's really going to give the top teams in the East a run for their money, as evidenced by its recent string of double-digit losses.