BOSTON -- As far back as Avery Bradley can remember, defense has always been his thing. In high school, when Bradley played in summer events that didn't allow full-court pressure, he would toe the half-court line, waiting to pick up. In college, Texas coach Rick Barnes would stick him on the opponent's top perimeter player. As a pro, Bradley would use garbage time minutes and stints in the D-League to show coaches he had a talent that could be tapped.
"If you had a tape of me from the first grade, you would see a kid playing defense," Bradley said. "It's just a gift. A lot of coaches tell you that you're not going to get on the floor if you can't play defense. I just smile and say, 'Well, I guess I'm going to play then.'"
This season, Bradley has taken his defense to the next level. Injuries to Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen opened up opportunities, and Bradley has seized them. Filling in for Rondo in back-to-back wins over Orlando in January, Bradley held Jameer Nelson to a total of 16 points on 5-for-13 shooting while forcing six turnovers. Subbing for Allen in a blowout win over the Heat on April 1, Bradley limited Dwyane Wade to 15 points on 6-for-17 from the floor. And in an overtime win over Atlanta on April 11, Bradley stripped the ball from Marvin Williams -- while tying his shoe.
"He's as good as anybody on the ball in the league, period," said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. "He can guard baseline to baseline. He has incredible lateral quickness, as good as anybody I've seen. His energy and his toughness remind me of when we had Anthony Carter. He could impact the game with his on-ball defense at multiple positions."
While Bradley's defense got him on the floor, it's the evolution of his all-around game that has kept him there. Bradley has always been quick off the dribble and a sharp, lightning quick cutter off the ball. But coming out of college, his jump shot was suspect.
"So much of [the problem] was balance, just getting his feet under him, getting his feet set so he could elevate on his shot," Barnes said. "He didn't always put the ball in his sweet spot all the time. He would lean forward on the shot or lean back. But correcting that stuff is just about reps and you knew he would do that."
Indeed, Bradley is a worker. When Bradley, the No. 19 pick in the 2010 draft, was demoted to the D-League last season, he matched a league record with nine steals in a game. When he was recalled to Boston, Bradley vowed to be more aggressive. In one of his first practices back Bradley drove baseline and dunked on Kendrick Perkins.
"That was a big moment," Bradley said. "I think everyone knew then that I was here to play."
During the lockout, Bradley trained in Las Vegas, Seattle and Austin, where he drilled with, among others, reigning scoring champion Kevin Durant. In October, Bradley signed a deal with Hapoel Migdal in Israel. As a rookie with the Celtics last season, Bradley was often anxious about being exposed offensively in practices and games, so he stuck to his strengths. In Israel, Bradley worked exclusively on his weaknesses. He went left again and again. He pulled up for mid-range shots. Anything Bradley thought he struggled with, he did.
"It did a lot for my confidence," Bradley said. "Last year, when I shot I didn't even think it was going in. I knew it was off. Now, I really believe that everything is going in."
Celtics coach Doc Rivers says making Bradley primarily a two-guard has helped, too.
"I remember talking with Rick [Barnes] and he said to me 'Doc, Avery wants to score,'" Rivers said. "He said 'you can try him at point but he wants to score the ball.' It's hard enough for any point guard to come into the league to know when to shoot when not to shoot. I thought moving him to the two was the best thing that could have happened. He's making the jump shot again. Other teams used to guard him like they guarded Rondo. Now they are guarding him like Ray."
Bradley says working with this group of veterans has already helped shape his career.
"I picked up how to be a professional from Ray," Bradley said. "I've learned the right way to work on my game from [Kevin Garnett]. He is my motivation. Anyone playing with him makes you want to work that much harder. He might be sore after the game but he's still out getting shots up. Paul [Pierce], we might have played a back to back and a few of us who don't play as many minutes as him will be lifting the next day and he is down with us doing the same thing we are. These guys don't know it but that rubs off."
As the playoffs approach, Bradley has evolved from an afterthought to essential. Allen's chronic ankle soreness makes his status for the postseason unpredictable. Rivers, like many coaches before him, will stick the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Bradley with the toughest defensive assignment. And he will expect Bradley to deliver.
Bradley relishes the opportunity. He eyeballs the tough defensive matchups on the schedule. He wears No. 0 in part because his favorite number, 11 (in honor of his hero, Detlef Schrempf, was already retired at Texas), in part because it represents a new beginning, a chance for him to make a name for himself from scratch. The playoffs is another shot for him to do just that.
"I love it when people doubt me," Bradley said. "It makes me smile. And it makes me work a whole lot harder."