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Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley have provided a dizzying 1-2 defensive punch.BOSTON -- In practice, Kevin Garnett calls them "The Pitbulls." To the media, he refers to their presence together as "Helter Skelter."
But no matter what description Garnett bestows on the duo of Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee, the message is clear: Their defensive intensity -- on-ball pressure in particular -- has emerged as one of the most potent factors in Boston's recent resurgence, evidenced by a current five-game win streak.
Bradley's return from offseason shoulder surgeries was always expected to give the C's a shot in the arm, but little did anyone know that he and Lee would emerge as such a considerable 1-2 punch of defensive vigor.
The two have rarely been paired together in the six games since Bradley returned -- sharing the court for a mere seven minutes -- but the two operate as defensive baton-passers of sort. Their responsibilities are often the same: Check the opponent's best perimeter player. Bradley might get the initial assignment, but Lee is more than happy to pick up wherever he leaves off.
"I call them 'Helter Skelter,'" Garnett said before Friday's 103-91 victory over the Rockets. "They've definitely given us a different light in the sense of where we've been able to push up and pressure on. Avery's been like a hope of life, if not a beam of light, lately, and an inspiration to all of us, and we're just feeding off of that. But they give us a different dynamic from a defending standpoint. Offensively, you know what you're going to get from both guys. They're one-on-one players, they can put the ball in the basket, and they're both competitors. But from a defensive standpoint, we follow that lead."
Lee was later informed of Garnett's glowing praise.
"We just take it as a compliment," he said. "It started with that New York game, because that was pretty much the first time me and Avery got a chance to play extended minutes together. The thing we were trying to do is pressure the ball and make them run the offense with like 16 or less on the clock and we were able to do that."
Bradley and Lee both had a hand in helping to limit Rockets star James Harden to 24 points on 9-of-19 shooting Friday night, which snapped his franchise-record streak of 14 straight games with 25 points or more.
Bradley admitted afterward that he and Lee can see the frustration on opponents' faces when they're trying to run sets in their offense, and especially when even getting the ball across half court becomes a tall task.
"You start to see some teams try to do it to us, because it affects the game a lot," Bradley said. "We definitely frustrate our opponent, and that's what we try to do. I start the game off trying to frustrate whoever I'm going up against and Courtney comes in the game and he does the same thing."
Bradley and Lee both admitted that they take a sense of pride in how aggressively they play on the defensive end. And it's beginning to become a legitimate weapon for Boston -- an aspect of the team that opponents constantly need to worry about.
Paul Pierce said earlier in the season, with the team floating around .500, that the Celtics lacked any type of swagger. Opponents had no reason to fear Boston, and it had a lot to do with the defensive inconsistencies. Bradley's return played a vital role in turning that around, and his allegiance with Lee should only foster that growth moving forward.
"Well, it's really good with those two, because they really pick up the ball and put a lot of pressure full-court," said Pierce before Friday's game. "It takes a lot of teams out of their offense to where they're setting up the ball with not a lot of time on the shot clock and it throws teams' rhythm off. So, if they can continue to do that, it does wonders for our defense."
As good as Bradley and Lee are at frustrating opponents, they're also adept at frustrating one another in practice. The same type of defense the Hardens and J.R. Smiths of the world see on a game-by-game basis, Bradley and Lee see during every practice. But they accept the challenge, knowing the constant pressure they put on one another far exceeds practically anything they'll see in a game setting.
"Yeah, we talk about it all the time, especially in practice," Lee said. "We guard each other, we try to get around each other, and we both struggle with doing so. And so we speak about it a lot. The one thing we always say, 'If we play defense like this on each other, it's only going to make the games easy.' So that's one thing we always talk about."
"[Guarding one another] can get frustrating at times, but we're both doing it to each other," Lee continued. "So the main thing about it is we're pushing each other to get better. We're both 2-guards that play the point guard position at times, so it's only going to help us as far as handling pressure and ballhandling. But then it's just going to make everybody better as a whole, as far as our defense in practice. And then being able to execute against that defense in practice, it's going to make it a lot easier out here."
With their defensive pressure contributing to the team's best basketball of the season, don't expect to see Bradley and Lee shrink away from their responsibilities any time soon.
"That's our role on this team," Bradley said. "We have to come in and play hard on the defensive end and bring that energy and that's what we're going to do every single night."