- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
BOSTON -- It was too quiet.
Avery Bradley was sitting on the bench and couldn't help but be struck by how somber TD Garden seemed Wednesday night as the Boston Celtics trudged their way through a visit from an undermanned New Jersey Nets squad that was hanging around into the third quarter.
Teammate Sasha Pavlovic leaned in and told Bradley that, if they got on the floor again, they had to turn things around with their defense. And while solid on-ball defense is rarely what brings the Garden faithful to their feet, Bradley would garner the night's biggest reaction with what might have been his most inspiring sequence as a pro.
Moments after drilling a corner 3-pointer -- the first of his NBA career -- Bradley pressured Nets guard Jordan Farmar into a dazzling midcourt turnover that sent the Garden into a frenzy.
Captain Paul Pierce seemed particularly inspired, delivering an emphatic chest bump that might have knocked 18 months of frustration straight out of Bradley.
The Celtics topped the Nets 89-70 in the type of ugly win that few will remember at season's end. But for Bradley, it might have been a career-altering moment, the point at which he made a leap to certified NBA role player.
All with his defense.
"Sitting there on the bench, you could just tell it was kind of dead in there," Bradley said. "Sasha was like, 'If we get in, we're going to lift up the energy, we're going to do whatever we can do.' My strength is on the defensive end, so that's what I was focusing on. If I got in on defense, I was going to try to lift the energy."
After connecting on the trifecta -- a bucket that would aid a 16-3 run to close the third quarter and put the Celtics on top by 16 heading into the final frame -- Bradley picked up Farmar full court off the inbounds. Farmar initially sent the second-year guard stumbling backward with a little forearm shove as they crossed half court. Bradley seemed a bit surprised there was no whistle but wasn't deterred.
He rushed back out to Farmar above the 3-point stripe. As the shot clock reached 10, Bradley took a big poke and knocked the ball loose. Farmar scrambled to pick it up, but Bradley again got his hand on the dribble. The ball bounced high near the scorer's table at midcourt, but Bradley leaped, snared the ball and threw it off Farmar's side, causing the ball to carom out of bounds.
When the referee motioned toward the Boston end of the court, the arena exploded. Bradley pumped his fist and Pierce rushed over with a chest bump that nearly put Bradley on the floor.
After a rookie season filled with frustrations, this likely was the 21-year-old's biggest moment. He went on to finish with 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting with two steals and two assists over 23 minutes.
"It just shows how much your teammates care about you, how happy they are for you," Bradley said while recalling Pierce's celebration, "especially because I'm a young player and you can tell that I started off struggling. They help me out every single day."
And now, finally, Bradley is helping them out in return.
Bradley chipped a bone in his ankle during a pre-draft workout in Oklahoma City in June 2010. That might have contributed to his draft-day slide to the Celtics at No. 19. It also prevented him from engaging in summer league and training camp that year. He ultimately logged only 162 minutes over 30 appearances during his rookie campaign.
The lockout this summer not only caused him to again miss offseason ball, but forced him to travel to Israel just to get some organized play under his belt. Yet he still struggled to carve out a role in Boston at the start of the new season. Celtics coach Doc Rivers even suggested he might lose some of his minutes to rookie E'Twaun Moore.
Instead, Bradley got extended time this past weekend against the Washington Wizards, and things seem to be clicking.
"I thought Avery was sensational tonight," Rivers said. "He missed some shots early and a lot of people have been making a lot of talk about his shots, but his defense was infectious. I thought it changed the game. I thought he was phenomenal defensively."
And that wasn't lost on his teammates, including Pierce.
"I think with [Bradley], it's all about his confidence," Pierce said. "I think the more he plays and the more he plays well, actually, he believes in himself. I think he works so hard and tonight, you've got to understand who he is for us. He's a guy who can really defend the ball, probably as good as anybody in the NBA, the way he picks up and slides his feet, uses his athleticism. And if he can do that, and then he's able to knock down open shots when he gets them, he can be a hell of a player in this league."
Echoed Rajon Rondo: "His confidence is building each game. You can see it out there on the floor when he's picking guys up. His defense is creating his offense for him, so that's good, and that's a plus for us."
Rivers has talked a lot about needing younger players to separate themselves in order to gain his confidence to put them on the floor. Bradley might have accelerated that process Wednesday night, but it's up to him to build off that.
His role is becoming more defined, and that might be exactly what he needs to carve out a consistent spot in Rivers' rotation.
"He understands that he's a great defensive player," Rivers said. "The offensive stuff will come. I just think it's very tough for young guys because they want to be an offensive player, and it affects their mind. But you can see him slowly getting it."
Kevin Garnett said of Bradley's play Wednesday night: "He came in like a bloodhound, man."
Rivers had a different suggestion: a honey badger, the Internet meme turned sports phenomenon (aided by LSU football standout Tyrann Mathieu). The comparison of Bradley's defense to that of the frisky animal seems appropriate.
All we need now is Randall, the narrator of the original YouTube clip, to provide a voiceover on Bradley's defensive highlights. After watching his defense Wednesday night, he'd surely declare, "Oh, that's nasty!"
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.
19hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann