BOSTON -- Avery Bradley, basking in the glow of the Detroit Pistons' 118-108 triumph over his former team, emerged from a quick postgame visit to the Boston Celtics' locker room Monday night when a Celtics staffer in the TD Garden hallway cracked, "You don't know anyone in there."
Bradley didn't argue the suggestion. Boston's locker room, which features just four players from last season's Eastern Conference finalist, had emptied out by the time Bradley popped into the trainer's room and even then he didn't see a lot of familiar faces among the staffers in there.
And yet this Boston homecoming was everything that Bradley could have possibly wished for.
Right before Bradley was to be the final player announced during visitor starting lineup introductions, the lights dropped at TD Garden. On the JumboTron, a video of Bradley shooting in a darkened Celtics' practice facility appeared and fans roared at the sight.
A brief montage of highlights from Bradley's seven seasons in Boston followed, including Bradley's famous block on Dwyane Wade in the 2012 playoffs that left Wade falling backward to the parquet floor. Then came a Bradley pickpocket of Carmelo Anthony that led to a breakaway slam. Finally, a game-winner against the rival Cleveland Cavaliers. A "Thank You Avery" message displayed, and Bradley acknowledged the ovation by waving to the Garden faithful.
The entire sequence lasted less than a minute but was notable because, in recent seasons, the Celtics had never honored a former player that wasn't a member of Boston's 2008 title team.
Bradley had been on the Boston bench for nearly all of those tributes. For Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. For Doc Rivers and Rajon Rondo. For Kendrick Perkins and Ray Allen. For Eddie House and Brian Scalabrine and Tom Thibodeau.
Bradley was the first player to buck the title trend. And it's not hard to understand why. Bradley had been the last link to the Big Three era. And after being raised by that veteran crew, he helped bridge the gap to the Brad Stevens era, when he served as a veteran leader for a team starting the climb back to title contention. And it was the trade of Bradley to Detroit that helped Boston formally sign Gordon Hayward and assemble its new big three that includes Kyrie Irving and Al Horford.
The significance of both the tribute and Garden ovation was not lost on Bradley. But, ever focused, he quickly moved forward. And it was Bradley's typically tenacious defense that helped the Pistons do what few teams in the NBA have done this season: corral Irving and prevent Boston from rallying from behind.
"In my seven years here, I tried to go out there and compete hard and leave everything out on the court for [the fans]," Bradley said. "For them to show that respect back to me, it means a lot to me. Like I said, this will always be my second home and I love all the fans in Boston."
Bradley said it wasn't hard to keep his focus on the game despite the pregame video. He helped harass Irving into 6-of-16 shooting and a season-high six turnovers. Irving finished with 18 points but was a minus-21 in plus/minus over 36 minutes.
"I'm a professional athlete, man. I go out there and I just try to leave everything out on the floor and play hard," Bradley said. "Every game to me is important. It doesn't matter who we are playing. I'm going to come with the same intensity every single game, the only difference was the fans before [this game] and the atmosphere. Like I said, I appreciate them."
Irving didn't hesitate to give Bradley, a two-time All-Defensive team selection, praise for his efforts.
"He's one of the best I go against, if not the best," he said. "Just going against Avery in the playoffs and the regular season, you've just gotta commend a guy like that, to be able to stay in front of you, pressure you one way, and still be able to do it without fouling."
Bradley, who during a Twitter Q&A upon his arrival in Detroit acknowledged that Irving was his toughest cover in the NBA, was asked if he felt like he got into Irving's head on this night.
"I don't think so. Kyrie is a very good player," Bradley said. "He goes out there and he tries to make plays for his team. I just tried to make everything hard on him. I feel like guys at Kyrie's level, all you can really do is make things hard on them and try to pressure them the entire game, pick your spots. Give them different looks. That's what we try to do tonight as a team. It wasn't just me, it was team defense."
Celtics guard Marcus Smart, one of the few players remaining that played alongside Bradley, felt like Bradley impacted the game with his usual intensity.
"[Bradley] came out real aggressive on both ends," Smart said. "He really did what Avery Bradley does. He makes it hard, gets up in you, and makes you work. We didn't do a good job handling his pressure."
Bradley got plenty of help. Andre Drummond had a monster night with 26 points and 22 rebounds. Drummond, with his tweaked free-throw form, kept shushing the Garden crowd while making 6 of 8 at the free throw line. Tobias Harris added a game-high 31 points on 16 shots for the Pistons.
The loss seemed to confirm the Pistons as legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference. And a rare stumble for Boston left Irving yearning for another crack against Bradley & Co.
"Can't wait. Can't wait. Can't wait," Irving said. "It's always exciting when you have these regular-season matchups because you never know what can happen down the line, but it's always interesting because the way you respond. I know that most of my teammates and the coaching staff will be a little more prepared to play those guys.
"It kind of makes you want to mark it down on the calendar to see them again, just by their reaction after winning the basketball game as well. So you can tell they wanted it, and they came out and proved it."