ATLANTA -- Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley had already required the assistance of teammate Jared Sullinger to simply put on his pants and now, after hobbling over to a chair on the opposite side of the locker room, he had recruited a training staff assistant to help put on his socks and shoes.
From the team's makeshift trainer's room, Marcus Smart emerged with his left hand wrapped in black tape after spraining a finger on his non-shooting hand during Saturday's Game 1 of an Eastern Conference first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks. The 22-year-old guard reached out his right hand and rubbed Bradley's head, a sort of "chin up!" gesture knowing that -- while Bradley might not want to admit it -- his availability for the postseason is in jeopardy after he sustained a right-hamstring strain that left him unable to walk off the court without help.
Bradley, playfully dubbed Mr. Optimism in this space because of his unfailingly rosy outlook, suggested he'd like to be back on the court for Tuesday's Game 2. Given the way he has bounced back from past injuries, you can't put it past him. But his limp, an impending MRI, and the obvious concern of his teammates suggested a more dire outlook for both Bradley and the Celtics, who must dig themselves out of a 1-0 hole in the best-of-seven series after a 102-101 loss at Philips Arena.
The Celtics turned in another woeful first-half performance Saturday, generating a mere 34 points on 23.1 percent shooting over the first 24 minutes, all while digging themselves a hole as big as 19 points and which stood at 17 at the break. Bradley scored a team-best nine first-half points, generating a quarter of Boston's 12 total field goals and helping to at least keep the Celtics in the game.
And Bradley helped fuel Boston's second-half rally with nine more points after intermission. The Celtics had just taken their first lead of the night when Bradley crumpled to the floor, clutching the hamstring after landing awkwardly trying to defend a Jeff Teague layup attempt. Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Bradley heard a pop. Teammate Jae Crowder pounded the scorer's table in frustration after realizing the severity of Bradley's injury.
Boston must figure out how to replace not only its second-leading scorer (Bradley averaged a career-best 15.2 points per game this season, trailing only All-Star Isaiah Thomas), but also maybe its best perimeter defender. This after a game in which Atlanta guards Teague and Kent Bazemore scored 23 points apiece.
The obvious option to step into Bradley's starting role is Smart, the second-year guard who was nothing short of spectacular in Saturday's second half. Smart struggled with his shot throughout his sophomore campaign, but he finished Saturday with 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting and produced some big buckets to at least give Boston a chance at stealing Game 1.
Filling Bradley's shoes is no easy task, however. Not when he had the best individual offensive (107) and defensive (97.5) ratings on the team this season. Smart showed again Saturday that he can be a two-way force, whether it's getting under the skin of Hawks players with aggressive defense or hitting open shots. Smart seemed to be everywhere on the court during the second half and, while he had one forgettable foul when Boston could have played for a stop late in the game, he was a big reason why the Celtics were even close.
"First off, nobody wants to step into that role because somebody else got hurt," Smart said. "We lost a brother. That hurts us. But we understand what we’re playing for. It’s time for other players to step up. If that means I’ve got to step up with a little bit more responsibility, then that’s something I’m willing to take on.
"And my teammates have been really good; when I have responsibilities like that they trust me with it. And the coaching staff. I just have to go out there and do everything that I can and that I know to do, and that’s just keep playing hard. And everything will work itself for this team."
The Celtics will also lean more heavily upon Evan Turner, who was elevated to the starting group in the second half as Boston went small to better match up with the Hawks. Turner finished with 10 points on 4-of-13 shooting with eight rebounds and five assists over 34 minutes, 27 seconds.
Asked about increasing his role, Turner said, "I’ll be fine. Don’t even worry about it. I’ll definitely be fine. More minutes, more work and we’ll win. So I’ll be fine."
Not only will it be tough for Boston to replace Bradley's production, but counting more on Smart and Turner will tweak the team's entire rotation. Stevens must weigh the benefits of going small with Turner in the starting lineup (Amir Johnson came off the bench in the second half and played with good defensive energy).
"We played [small] the last 42 minutes," Stevens said. "I thought we struggled to guard them out of the gate, so that was a big reason why we did that. Somewhat predictable coming into this series, based on our game last Saturday."
The Celtics have operated all season with a next-man-up policy. They seem to be embracing that mentality now if Bradley is indeed out.
"Hopefully he’s all right," Turner said. "We don’t really know too much what it is yet. If he can play, he’ll be out there and play. If not, we’ll have to step up."