BOSTON -- Move over, Santa Claus. You're not the only one making a list this time of year.
Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley has begun crafting a list of things he wants to work on next summer to improve his game. This might sound crazy because, well, it's December and there's still more than half of the current season left to play. What's more, Bradley already has taken his play to another level in his seventh NBA season, most notably leading the Celtics in rebounding despite being just 6-foot-2.
Bradley, who has muscled his way into All-Star consideration because of his two-way contributions, is one of the few Celtics players with experience playing on Christmas Day. On Sunday, he'll compete in his fourth holiday matinee when the Celtics visit the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. It's a chance for Bradley to showcase the strides he already has made, even if he's already thinking about the next step.
"I already sat down and really made [a list] because I know what I can do to improve," said Bradley, an All-Defense first-teamer last season who is averaging career-bests of 17.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.
"I’m not going to tell you [what's on the list] but when I start doing it, you'll be like, ‘Oh, OK, he added that.' I already know that it’s going to help me out so much. It’s going to make it very hard for people to guard me when I have the ball. It’s going to help."
Bradley entered the season with a goal of making the rest of the league regard him as a two-way player. His defensive talents have long been acknowledged, but Bradley is having an extremely efficient offensive season, shooting 47.9 percent overall and 41.1 percent beyond the 3-point arc. Even on a team in which backcourt partner Isaiah Thomas is having a monster offensive season, Bradley has heard the All-Star whispers regarding his play.
"I don’t think about [being an All-Star]. Of course I feel like any player that plays this game should want to reach the highest level and the highest accolades, which includes the All-Star Game," Bradley said. "So, yeah, I would be dumb not to want to be an All-Star. But it’s not my main focus. I’m just out there trying to play basketball and improve every single game. Even next year, I know what I’m going to bring for next year, too. I work on it now but I know what I’m going to master this summer that’s going to make my game that much better."
About the only thing that gets Bradley more excited than the potential of future progress is playing in a hostile environment. Bradley's career splits show a player that elevates his production on the road, which runs counter to how most players in the NBA fare.
So why is Bradley better on the road?
"I think it’s just because having all those people against you," Bradley said. "I think that’s what it is for me, honestly. I just want to prove people wrong. I think I do [feed off negative energy]. I don’t know why. But I know I do. I look forward to road games."
In an absolute grind of a month in which the Celtics will play 10 of their 16 December games away from TD Garden, forgive Celtics coach Brad Stevens if he can barely keep his days straight because of Boston's hectic travel schedule.
"Obviously, it’s a good thing if your team is on the schedule on Christmas Day," Stevens said. "I don’t really look at it as anything more than a game. If there weren’t Christmas trees and lights and everybody talking about Christmas, I wouldn’t even know what day it is."
For Celtics All-Stars Thomas and Al Horford, this is the first time either player will compete on Christmas. Considering the success the Hawks had under Horford during his nine seasons in Atlanta, it seems impossible that he never played on Christmas, but he's excited for the opportunity.
"It’s special," Horford said. "I was in Atlanta for nine years, and we never got to play on Christmas Day. So it’s a big deal. Only I think it’s 10 teams total playing on that day. ... I’m grateful. And it’s just an exciting time. This doesn’t happen every year."
Echoed Thomas: "I love [Christmas games]. I’ve never had one. Growing up I always watched games on Christmas, so it was a dream of mine to be able to play on Christmas one day."
For the Celtics, a Christmas game represents a chance to showcase the team's potential to a national audience. Before Russell Westbrook outdueled Thomas in the fourth quarter of Oklahoma City's win on Friday night, Boston had won a season-high four straight and looked more like the team that was many projected to push the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East.
Health woes contributed to an uneven start for Boston. But with its preferred starting five of Thomas, Bradley, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson and Horford, the Celtics are 11-4 this season, and that five-man pairing owns one of the best net ratings in the league.
Stevens is still figuring out the best ways to maximize his talent, and Boston has endured some painful lulls when both Thomas and Horford have both been on the bench. A second unit that lost the steadying presence of Evan Turner over the summer is still developing cohesion and chemistry, which was made tougher by the injuries at the start of the season.
While the Celtics know they've let some winnable games get away this season, there's also some satisfaction in simply keeping their head above water given the brutal road-heavy schedule at the start of the season. Even after Friday's loss to the Thunder -- the second heartbreaker against Oklahoma City in 12 days -- Stevens was optimistic about the direction his team is headed.
And why not? Thomas has been spectacular, particularly in the fourth quarters of recent games. The Celtics play their best basketball when Horford is on the floor. Crowder is healthy again after battling an ankle injury, and Johnson has looked spry lately. The Celtics feel like they are poised to take off a bit, as their recent winning streak suggested.
Sunday is a chance to gauge where they stand versus another East team looking to distinguish itself. And Bradley loves that it's a road game. After all, the Celtics are 11-7 on the road this season and just 6-6 at home.
"It’s been a tough month, but I like like this [schedule]," Bradley said. "I’d like it if we had back-to-back-to-back-to-backs. I know that sounds crazy, but I don’t mind. ... I do appreciate [playing on Christmas] because it’s not like every team plays on Christmas. It’s a nice opportunity to go out there and get a win playing in front of a lot of fans -- not only at the game, but all the families that are going to be sitting at home watching it. That’s a blessing."