No one expected Avery Bradley to see the court on Tuesday night, barely 24 hours from being claimed by the Lakers after being waived by the very Golden State Warriors the purple and gold were lining up against.
But, then again, not many expected Bradley back with the Lakers in general, even the franchise itself.
Exactly a week prior to Tuesday’s regular season opener, the Lakers showed a tribute video for Bradley, then on the Warriors, in his first return to Staples Center since helping the 2019-20 Lakers win a title. Fast forward seven days and Bradley had been waived, claimed and was available on Tuesday, but head coach Frank Vogel noted pregame that he was a more of a “break in case of emergency” option on the night.
But an emergency came with Kent Bazemore saddled with four fouls early in the fourth quarter. With the Lakers already down guards Kendrick Nunn, Talen Horton-Tucker and Wayne Ellington due to injury, Vogel turned to Bradley, desperate for a defensive spark. The result was the veteran guard nearly serving as the most unexpected catalyst for a victory against the Warriors since the days of Marcelo Huertas.
“I just wanted to go in there and just play hard, and that was my focus,” Bradley said. “LeBron found me on a few shots and I knocked them in but again, I’m just happy to be here and hopeful that if I get an opportunity to be out there on the floor I can just play hard and take whatever opportunities are given to me.”
Call it irony, call it coincidence, call it whatever, but Bradley has appeared in each of the Lakers’ last two full-capacity games: Tuesday’s contest and on March 10, 2020 against Brooklyn. But a lot has changed between those two games, globally, within the world of basketball and for Bradley himself.
Bradley opted out of the bubble with the Lakers to stay with his family before leaving in free agency to join the Heat. A midseason trade to Houston and a largely underwhelming season led to him signing a non-guaranteed deal with the Warriors heading into training camp. Bradley did enough during the preseason to leave an impression on Steph Curry and Draymond Green, both of who campaigned for the Warriors to retain him heading into the season. But the franchise opted to still waive the veteran guard, opening up his return to Los Angeles.
“It’s been a lot,” Bradley said. “But I can say I’m thankful. I’m thankful for the opportunity to be there, and to ultimately be here. I just want to take full advantage of this opportunity... I’m just thankful the Lakers gave me an opportunity to come back and gave me a chance to help this team in any way I can.”
And for all that changed in the 19 months between his appearances for the Lakers, Bradley hardly looked like he missed a beat on Tuesday. He played the final 8:14 of the game, knocking down a pair of corner 3-pointers minutes after stepping onto the court.
There's some value in Avery Bradley simply knowing how to play alongside James and Davis, especially early on in the season. Here, he realizes the strongside corner is empty, relocates on the baseline and loses Jordan Poole in the process. Leads to an open corner 3 pic.twitter.com/UflzrTOPEo— Jacob Rude (@JacobRude) October 20, 2021
But it wasn’t simply spot-up 3-pointers where Bradley made his mark. The Lakers reverted back to an old set for Bradley and Anthony Davis to create offense as well on multiple occasions, resulting in a layup for the latter.
Double Drag --> DHO --> Roll --> Lob— Alex Regla (@AlexmRegla) October 20, 2021
Even a season removed, this set sure felt familiar for Avery Bradley. pic.twitter.com/s7kGhdKJG0
And all that is without mentioning his value on the defensive end, where he made his mark for the Lakers in his previous tenure. The Lakers transition from defensive-minded players to offensive-minded this offseason left a vacancy Bradley can step into as well. He was so respected defensively within the organization in his last tenure with the Lakers that the team created “The Avery Challenge” when he was briefly sidelined with an injury.
For all the moves by the Lakers to get the band back together this offseason, it’s hard to argue any of the returnees looked more comfortable than Bradley on Tuesday.
“He’s just a guy obviously that we respect and was a part of our program two years ago,” Vogel said pregame. “He’s someone that when he was waived, we thought he could help us.”
The Lakers will have a lot of new pieces that need integrating this season across multiple positions. On Tuesday, though, it was a familiar, if unexpected, face that stepped up and nearly proved the difference, all while providing a glimpse of what was and what could still be for Bradley this season.