The mid-1990s, the Pacific Northwest, and a sinewy trash-talker with swift hands, feet, and a sixth sense of how to pry a ball loose from its owner.
A tale of two dominant defensive guards begins, and with Gary Payton.
The Seattle Supersonics star was then a one-man wrecking crew who made opposing point guards wish for in-game restraining orders. Such a force was Payton that the NBA named him its Defensive Player of the Year in 1996.
But in that same decade, the NBA began shifting, outlawing the physical tactics Payton and others used, setting the stage for the explosion of high-scoring point guards, while forcing defensive-minded players to be less aggressive.
And since Payton, no guard has won Defensive Player of the Year.
Payton didn’t know it, but in that same decade, not far away, another guard was building a stout defensive reputation at a community center in Lakewood, Wash.
The guard was told to ease up so that others could dribble.
But he didn’t. He guarded his adversaries so fiercely that some cried.
He was 5 years old.
His name was Avery Bradley.
Nowhere to go
Let it keep, that image of a kindergartner’s defense bringing opponents to tears.
Now look at Bradley, a 22-year-old guard for the Celtics, who will face the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs beginning Saturday.
Bradley finished this, his third season, allowing 331 points on 475 plays. Of players with at least 450 defensive plays under their belt this season, Bradley’s average (0.679) is far and away the best. The next closest is Chicago’s Taj Gibson (0.744).
And of players with at least 450 defensive plays, Bradley also ranks No. 1 in opponent field goal percentage (30.8 percent), ahead of Memphis’s Tony Allen (33.4).
“If you look at our numbers,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers says, “there’s no player that has changed our defense more than Avery changed ours after Game 30.’’
While Bradley was out to rehab from dual shoulder surgery, the Celtics were allowing 0.925 points per play, which would rank as the NBA’s 14th best defense if you extrapolate that number over the whole season. But since Bradley returned, the Celtics gave up 0.894 points per play, which would rank fourth.
And in the playoffs, where possessions are amplified and precious, Bradley is a rare weapon suited for such a setting: a feisty, tireless guard who bodies up to his adversary for the full 94 feet from tipoff to its final buzzer.
“Nobody does 94 feet,’’ says Washington’s John Wall, who also faced Bradley back when they played in AAU, “and he does 94 feet the whole game.’’
It would be easy to tie the narratives of Payton and Bradley together here, to say that the former influenced the latter, that Bradley is just following Payton’s path.
It would be especially easy to say that because Celtics guard Jason Terry, a Seattle native who is close friends with Payton, says he believes that Bradley, a Tacoma, Wash., native, is the closest thing to Gary Payton since Gary Payton.
(Payton considers this, then adds that if Terry, a close and longtime friend thinks that, then, well, there must be something to it. “And that’s a great thing,’’ he adds.)
But the two play different styles in different eras, and, even then, Bradley didn’t study Payton nor was Payton his favorite player. That title fell to another member of the mid-’90s Supersonics, a 6-foot-9-inch German forward named Detlef Schrempf.
If it’s surprising that Schrempf was Bradley’s favorite player, consider that Schrempf himself laughed at the idea when Bradley told him so years later.
But as Payton did, Bradley does have designs on one day winning the Defensive Player of the Year award.
Payton doesn’t believe a guard can win it again because of how the game has changed. And Rivers won’t argue that the league is different.
“It used to be a move-your-feet-and-use-your-hands league,’’ the coach says. “Now, it’s a move-your-feet-and-get-your-body-in-front-of-the-ball.’’
Says Bradley, “People would really hate playing against me if I could touch them.’’
But Rivers believes Bradley can win Defensive Player of the Year one day, in part because he’s the prototype.
“He’s what everyone is going to have to be,’’ Rivers says.
Bradley has heard this before. A basketball magazine once referred to him as a “drone,’’ meaning that he was the first of his kind, a defender best suited for this era.
But Bradley says he’s always played this way and calls it his God-given talent.
Those who know him best swear it’s true: He’s a natural.
“All us coaches, we like to take credit for everything, but we didn’t teach Avery Bradley how to play defense,’’ says Garry Ward, Bradley’s AAU coach in Washington.
“It’s something God put inside him.’’
Around the clock
Energy is what separates Bradley, says Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.
And Thibodeau repeats it twice more — “His energy, his energy’’ — to drive home that it’s unusual for anyone to play that aggressive up and down the court all game long.
But Bradley is wired differently, so much so that his mother, Alicia Jones, says candy helped him sleep growing up. But even then, she’d find him in a semiconscious state, sleep-talking about basketball. Then he’d wake before sunrise.
“I used to wonder, ‘Who is outside at 5 o’clock in the morning on the basketball court in my backyard?’ ’’ asked Larry Owens, Bradley’s uncle, who lived next door.
He’d look outside, and it would be Bradley, shooting that early if he had school or not, returning in the evenings after homework, shooting until 10 or later.
He followed that routine for years. If it rained or was cold, Owens might take the goal down to keep Bradley away — “That’s the only way to get him to stop,’’ he says — and then Bradley would knock on Owens’s door, upset, asking why he would do such a thing.
But Bradley didn’t kill energy on just anything.
“He didn’t hang out of spend time in the streets,’’ says his brother, Tim Mack. He was focused, “self-made,’’ Mack says.
On the court, Bradley quickly earned the nickname “Spiderman.’’ The idea was that he seemed to be everywhere at once.
He was a one-man press in AAU games growing up, says Abdul Gaddy, a childhood friend and teammate. Bradley would guard the player inbounding the ball, then whoever he passed it to, then whoever got the ball next.
“It seemed like he was guarding everybody,’’ Gaddy says. “He was unhuman to us.’’
Karl Drusch coached Bradley in AAU in Arlington, Texas, and remembered tournaments where his team played four games a day for days on end. But Bradley never needed rest.
“He would just never slow down,’’ Drusch says.
Near game’s end, he had plenty left to take over.
Ward cited one game where his team trailed by 7 points with a minute left. Ward was stomping mad.
“Coach, don’t worry, we’re gonna win,’’ Bradley told him.
Bradley stole the ball four times and scored four times in a minute. They won.
But Bradley also treated practices as seriously as he did games.
Ward had Bradley and other players run up this especially steep hill in Renton, Wash., and only Bradley could sprint to its peak five consecutive times with ease while others walked after 1½ trips.
“He just never gets tired,’’ Ward says.
“He’s a freak. A freak,’’ says University of Texas assistant coach Chris Ogden, who recruited Bradley to play for the Longhorns. “He’s not the bounciest guy in the world, but he’s a freak when it comes to athleticism and running all day.’’
The Celtics have a conditioning drill wherein players run a “10’’ – that is, 10 consecutive lengths up and down the court, also known as five down-and-backs. For centers, a good finishing time is between 1:05 to 1:06; for guards, it’s 1:00 to 1:01.
Bradley completed three straight 10s at sub-minute times — 54 seconds on the first two, 55.8 on the third — with a minute’s rest between each set. However, Bradley was late on his final run; he was supposed to complete it at 55 seconds, not 55.8.
Infuriated, Bradley then ran 10 consecutive 10s (100 total sprints), finishing all of them in less than a minute with about 40 seconds of rest in between each set.
Celtics officials were blown away.
“God has given me a gift, I guess, not to be tired, to always be able to run, to have heart,’’ Bradley says.
“We always used to say he had two hearts,’’ adds childhood friend Darnell Williams.
Bradley says he can fatigue, and that he started playing football when he was young to help wear him out. It became, he says, his best sport: “It was not even close,’’ he says.
Owens coached his nephew on the Lakewood Lumberjacks, where Bradley faced players three years his senior. Owens estimates Bradley was 3 feet 5 inches, 70 pounds.
“I ain’t never seen a little guy have so much heart,’’ he says.
Bradley played all over, and in his first year, he led the team in interceptions and fumble recoveries, showcasing a nose for the ball, of how to pry it loose from its owner.
And when there was a scrum, he always seemed to emerge with the pigskin, running the other way for a touchdown. “I would look for it, every time,’’ his mother says.
He also showed nastiness. Owens cited one play when Bradley was playing cornerback.
The opposing offense ran a sweep toward the side of the field opposite Bradley, but Bradley tore across, running the ball-carrier down. They met at the sideline, where Bradley’s thunderous tackle split the running back’s helmet open.
Owens ran over to check on Bradley, who was only smiling.
“That’s one thing about Avery,’’ Owens says. “He ain’t gotta talk smack to nobody, or go yell at teammates. He wasn’t the type like that. He’d just get up and smile.
“When I see him smile, I know the job is done.’’
When Bradley’s family moved to Texas, he played football there, too, and starred, but when the family moved back to Washington, his mother made him choose a sport.
He chose basketball because, he says, his school only had flag football, not tackle.
“And I wasn’t going to play flag football,’’ he says.
Basketball it was.
Sum result: dominance
The Celtics have a drill where players are in a squatting position and explode upward as they throw a medicine ball toward the ceiling. The ball varies between 12 and 16 pounds. Bradley can throw it 30 feet high.
Only Rajon Rondo can match it.
Which is to say, Bradley, at 6-2, 180 pounds, and 3.2 percent body fat, is stronger than he looks.
The Celtics have a drill where players shuffle side to side and run forward and backward over six points as they pick up and set down a tennis ball. The team uses sensors to time the players. Bradley’s numbers are the best on the roster.
Which is to say, Bradley is also quite agile.
Mix those two physical characteristics with an ultracompetitive mind-set — “If Avery was playing against his 2-year-old niece, he’d probably try to block every shot of hers, too,’’ Ward says — and there’s the potential for a lock-down defender.
But in this era, when hand-checking is illegal, a defender’s most important feature is his feet — and that is perhaps Bradley’s greatest trait of all.
They were, says Michael Peck, Bradley’s coach at Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., “the quickest feet I’ve ever seen.’’
He didn’t so much run as glide, as if he raced in the air, Peck says. Running north and south, Bradley looked smooth, his feet weightless.
He was also impressive laterally, where he crossed his feet over even though players are taught not to do that. But it didn’t matter.
“He’s defies technique,’’ Peck says.
Bradley studies opponents before games, in games, looking for tendencies, weaknesses. He uses tricks he won’t reveal. Opposing guards struggle to break free from Bradley, even after using a crossover or hesitation dribble.
“He just cuts you off one way, then you turn around back and he’s already at the next spot. Where are you supposed to go?’’ Wall asks. “There’s no playing with him.’’
But while moving laterally, Bradley can also keep his man in front without fouling or reaching in, a rare ability that impressed Celtics assistant general manager Ryan McDonough when he scouted Bradley. While defensive-minded players tightrope a line of being aggressive, but not so aggressive that they rack up quick fouls, that trait was valuable.
Another impressive attribute: Bradley’s penchant for not gambling on steals. Many players go for steals knowing that if they fail, they risk being out of position. But Bradley focuses more on staying between his man and the basket.
“That’s pretty rare,’’ McDonough says. “That shows a sense of maturity that he’s content with locking his man down.’’
“It was like he enjoyed it,’’ says Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. “It was like that was his great skill, dominating players on the defensive end.’’
But it wasn’t as though Bradley didn’t earn steals. “He’d wait on you to make a mistake, and if you a made a mistake, he was going to take it from you,’’ Ogden says.
Bradley, who averaged 1.3 steals this season, says his sole focus is to make life hard on his opponent, the entire game, even if 30 seconds remain and the outcome is decided.
“You could say I try to eliminate people,’’ he says.
Denver’s Jordan Hamilton, who played with Bradley at Texas, says he doesn’t even stop in practice.
“That’s all he looks to do, harass guys. He has the potential to be an all-defensive team player.’’
Terry, his Celtics teammate, agrees. His lasting memory of Bradley came during a 2008 basketball camp in Philadelphia when Bradley was heading into his senior year of high school. One hundred of the best prep players were there to show off their best stuff, and hundreds of college coaches were there to watch it.
“Avery was picking up full court, every time,’’ Terry says. “By the second day, they said, ‘No more pressure.’ The guards couldn’t even bring the ball up the court.’’
Some don’t dig his style. Orlando’s Jameer Nelson asked him to ease up in a game in February. Against Toronto in March, Bradley’s aggression made Sebastian Telfair lose his cool. Telfair was ejected after receiving two technical fouls.
“You can’t get frustrated, because he feeds off that,’’ Gaddy says.
From a time gone by
Today, eliminating an opponent is a chore. It’s the era’s fault.
“Every night, you’re going up against an elite guard and there’s really nothing you can do,’’ Bradley says.
“You either have to be God-gifted and move your feet, or else you’re toast.’’
A gift: spatial awareness. Drusch, his coach in Texas, marveled at how Bradley would always keep up with the player he was guarding even if he couldn’t see him.
Another gift: His ability to force opposing guards to turn their back to him, allowing him to occasionally earn steals.
Ward asked how.
“It’s something God gave me.’’
“Turning’’ players a few times in the backcourt helps Bradley melt precious seconds off the 24-second shot clock, forcing teams to rush to initiate their offense, which might be his single-most effective trait, at least according to the Celtics.
“He’s the best perimeter defender in the league, by far,’’ says Cleveland forward Tristan Thompson, who played with Bradley at Findlay Prep and then Texas.
“He guards guys 94 feet and he’s just a dog.’’
The Celtics prefer the term “pit bull.’’
Others use “Zero Tolerance,’’ a homage to his jersey number.
He can never be “The Next Gary Payton.’’ The game is too different.
But, as Rivers said, Bradley is already what other guards will have to be.
He is already the standard, the prototype, the future.