Indianapolis — Avery Bradley was waiting for the pass to come.
He almost always is.
Bradley read the passing lane, jumped in front and stole the ball, raced to the other end and dunked it home.
It’s nothing new, just another clip on his defense-first mix tape. He always seems to be ready, knowing the defensive game plan on how to play some of the NBA’s top scorers like it’s his business.
And it is.
Bradley is an elite defender, though he’s starting to expand that label into being one of the best two-way guards in the league. To the defense he’s added a career-best 17.8 points in his first season with the Pistons, a focal point of their surprising start to the season.
In his seven seasons with the Boston Celtics, they made the playoffs six times, with two trips to the conference finals. Besides the nightly swagger on the defensive end, he’s bringing experience and a winning pedigree to the Pistons — and they can use it.
His work ethic has been a boon and his teammates had immense respect for him when he arrived in the trade for Marcus Morris in July.
“When you’re here every day and see the way he works and approaches his work and the seriousness he brings, the respect just grows,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy told The Detroit News. “He came in with the respect based on what he had done, but it grows a lot more when you’re out here every day and see the way he goes to work…
“The example is great, but there are times when you have to speak up to people and talk. None of it matters if you’re not setting the example; nobody’s listening if you’re not doing the work.”
Besides Reggie Jackson with his stint with the Oklahoma City Thunder, there isn’t another Pistons player with such an extensive postseason resume. He has a complete package that will make him an elite target — and the Pistons’ highest priority — next summer when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
He’s bought into Van Gundy’s philosophy this season of getting more aggressive on defense, which leads to transition opportunities and easy baskets. Beyond that, he’s a veteran who has the savoir-faire that the younger players can gravitate toward.
“I just bring another form of professionalism, always being prepared and making sure we focus,” Bradley said. “One thing I can say is Stan does a really good job of preparing us for each game and it’s our job as professional athletes to make sure we’re prepared and paying attention and taking things seriously.
“The good teams are always locked in and always trying to get better as a team … I always remind guys that you have to pay attention and be serious. If we’re getting into the games and messing up on these things and coach is covering it in the morning or practice, (it shows).”
In just 14 games, he’s helped change the Pistons’ defensive disposition, as they’ve improved to eighth in defensive rating, with Bradley’s effort being seemingly contagious, as the starting group has raised their level along with him.
“He brings that toughness defensively and his energy brings the best out of everybody. When you see a guy so hard on the ball and making it tough for his matchup to score, it makes everybody else want to play their role too,” Drummond said. “It puts us all in sync because we’re playing so hard on the ball.”
Mentoring the young players
From the beginning, Bradley has made a formidable duo with Stanley Johnson guarding the wings. It’s made an impression on Johnson, who’s moved into the starting role at small forward, to have a dedicated veteran to emulate.
“He’s a big reason why we’re more mature than we were last year and even though he’s special, he does things people don’t want to do and makes all the big plays you need,” Johnson said. “We talk a bunch about a trillion things. He had Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and all those guys as his veterans, so the stuff I do, when he sees it and it’s not right, he says something to me.”
In return, Bradley, 27, has nurtured that relationship, looking to impart his wisdom to Johnson, who is in his third season and has aspirations of becoming an All-Star.
“(Johnson) is a very good guy and he wants to learn a lot — and I respect that about him. He’s open to learning from everybody. Since Day 1, I told him he’s very talented but he needs to figure out not only what you can bring to this team, but what you can bring to this league,” Bradley told The News. “Potentially, he can be one of the better defenders in this league and make shots. He has to go out there and prove that — he has that opportunity this year.
“I just always remind him to stay locked in and play hard on the defensive end because coach needs to trust something that you can bring every single night …
“He reminds me of myself, in a way.”
‘Lets his game do the talking’
Opposing coaches recognize the difference with Bradley in the lineup, knowing they have to game-plan for his presence and account for his activity in the passing lanes. They don’t shy away, but their best wing tends to have a tougher night when Bradley’s on the other side.
“He causes a problem; he takes a lot of pride on the defensive end and tries to disrupt what you’re trying to do,” said Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd, a former point guard. “He’s been part of a winning culture and he knows what it takes. The rest of the guys can feed off him. He just lets his game do the talking.
“He seems a little quiet, but when he does say something, they all probably listen and trust. He’s a great role model for those younger players to understand you can play both ends and be successful.”
That competitiveness and dedication has the Pistons on the track to making the playoffs for just the second time in the last decade. It’s a different form of leadership, that’s not based in yelling or bossing teammates around; rather, his daily example of yeoman work ethic makes a louder impact.
“You can lead by talking, by example or both. He’s more of a leader by example because he’s not really a talker,” forward Anthony Tolliver said. “We know what we’re going to get out of him every single night — and as a teammate, you can’t really expect more than that. It’s a great thing to have.”