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Something in reserve: Avery Bradley thrives off bench, but for how long?

Avery Bradley has been a boon to the Celtics off the bench, a discovery that came almost by accident. AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

BOSTON -- In early April 2012, Avery Bradley was in the process of supplanting Ray Allen as the Boston Celtics' starting shooting guard, but coach Doc Rivers shuffled Bradley back to a reserve role for one game against the San Antonio Spurs while Allen was returning from an ankle injury.

Bradley played well and scored 19 points in a loss, so it seemed fair to ponder if a veteran Boston team had found a new sixth-man spark plug in Bradley.

Well, we never found out. Bradley was thrust right back into a starting role two nights later and started every game for the rest of the season and into the playoffs -- until both of his shoulders popped out, forcing him to shut it down for the season.

Bradley ultimately started 224 of the next 226 games that he appeared in (including postseason games), playing in a reserve role for only two regular-season games while coming back from injury midway through the 2013-14 campaign. Even with a well-stocked backcourt this season, current Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he had never really given much thought to the idea of Bradley in a reserve role and admitted the team "tripped into" it a bit earlier this month, when their goal was easing Bradley back from a calf injury.

Bradley's production as a reserve during the past four games leaves you wondering whether Boston will be hesitant to move him back to a starting spot.

Alas, the Celtics might have no choice after starting point guard Marcus Smart suffered a lower left leg injury and will miss the next two games in Brooklyn and Atlanta.

Bradley has been fantastic in a reserve role, though. Just look at his basic splits as a starter and a reserve:

Bradley's splits are even more impressive when examining advanced numbers. Boston's offensive rating with him on the floor as a reserve is nearly 13 points higher -- climbing to a sizzling 113.3 -- than when he starts. Bradley owned a defensive rating of 102.9 as a starter, and that has plummeted to 85.7 off the bench. His net differential is plus-27.6 points per 100 possessions while coming off the pine.

So what's the difference for Bradley?

"I’m not thinking," said Bradley. "Even if I did happen to go back to the starting lineup or whatever, I just need to continue to just play hard. That’s the most important thing for all of us. I feel like the best way to play basketball is without thinking. That’s when we are all at our best. We just have to go out there, play hard, not think and just play basketball."

Bradley, who missed a couple of games earlier this month due to a calf strain, said he would prefer to start but ultimately wants to do what's best for the team. And watching how fellow Tacoma, Washington, native Isaiah Thomas embraced the reserve role after arriving in Boston last season, Bradley knows he can still have a heavy impact regardless of when he hits the floor.

"As long as we are winning games, that’s all that matters," Bradley said.

The Celtics have won three of their last four games with Bradley coming off the bench, the only loss being when Boston fumbled away an early 18-point advantage against Dallas on Wednesday night. Boston won the other three games by an average of 18.7 points.

Smart's absence will force Stevens to go back to Bradley at starting shooting guard, unless the team wanted to try Evan Turner in that role. The good news for Boston is that Stevens has options because of the team's depth, especially when his players are healthy.

"I could see games where you wanted, for whatever reason, for Avery to start for matchup purposes or you wanted Isaiah off the bench for matchup purposes," Stevens said. "We may start going that way. That’s what is going to be required from a flexibility standpoint on this team. Avery’s handled it well. Avery knows he’s one of our more accomplished players and he’s one of our more dynamic scorers."

"[Bradley is] really playing great," the coach continued. "I’m still in look-and-see and evaluate mode in a lot of things, but the one thing that is a given is that if we bring Isaiah or Avery off the bench, we’ve got a scoring spark. Avery just happens to be that [now], because when he came back, we wanted to be slow with him. Then he’s exploded the last [four] games, so we’ll see how that goes."

For his part, Bradley is ready for whatever lies ahead. Watching Boston win six of its last eight, all while surging to the top of the league in defensive rating, makes it easy for Bradley to embrace any role.

"I feel like a lot of guys -- we are all interchangeable," said Bradley. "One thing I can tell you about this league is about opportunity. You can put anybody in that situation, I feel like -- even Evan [Turner], he’s a great scorer, he’s going to have his nights like that, because he’s a very good player. We just have to continue to go out there and play hard and play as a team."