Eric Bledsoe, whom I touted several times as the Bucks greatest positional advantage in this series with Kyrie Irving injured, has been an utter bust to this point. His impassioned play Post All-Star Break suddenly seemed whisked away by nothing more than Terry Rozier’s blustery confidence. Both players got in their snipes this week, with Rozier likening Bledsoe to the Patriot’s usurped aged QB, Drew Bledsoe, while Milwaukee’s Bledsoe snapped back alleging to not know the identity of the defender that’s been rotating him on a spit these last two games.
I asked Eric Bledsoe about Terry Rozier’s strong start to the series and if he takes that matchup personally. He responded, “Who?” I said, “Terry Rozier.”— Matt Velazquez (@Matt_Velazquez) April 18, 2018
Bledsoe: “I don’t even know who the $@%# that is.”
Not a great look considering his broken ankles from game one remain strewn on the TD Garden court. What exactly could be taxing the Bucks’ point guard remains a mystery though. His high-powered play down the stretch, punctuated by an atypical 40% hot streak from deep on 4.8 attempts per game and 58.7% effective field goal percentage, have gone haywire. Foul trouble plagued him in game one, but his turnover prone play has helped Milwaukee to the second worst turnover percentage in the Playoffs (17.4%) after having the 13th best throughout the regular season (14%). Game two featured just one turnover for Bledsoe, but he still failed to achieve any semblance of rhythm within the Bucks offense. As with any two-game sample size, plenty of caveats abound, but it’s clear Bledsoe’s played two of his worst games this year consecutively thus far in the series.
Even with his vaunted speed, his transition game seems neutered a smidge. In game two on one transition possession, he seemed intent on barreling into the lane next to Giannis rather than maximizing his spacing, veering closer to the arc and allowing Giannis to use his amazing spacial recognition and athleticism maneuvering in the paint. Here, he somehow can’t blast past Aron Baynes or use his strength to body him away at the rim. His best play so far this series seemed to be the one where he rocketed past Terry Rozier after grabbing the ball from the ground, yet he can’t zoom past this plodding center?
Bledsoe’s speed is one of Milwaukee’s best offensive assets, particularly when he’s able to scoot by any defender feebly trying to keep up with him. Instead of leveraging that though, for one possession on Tuesday, he opted to merely post up Mark Jackson style and pound every bit of air out of the ball. When he kept at it, the result was very Playoff Bledsoe like - a turnover. Bledsoe’s strength is unique for a guard of his size, but any advantage he has over guys like Rozier or Larkin are mitigated completely when he opts for his butt over his blazing quickness.
The shooting with Bledsoe will wax and wane, it has all season. So I’m not that alarmed by his eye-gouging shooting figures so far (40% effective field goal percentage). What is more discouraging is some of his shot selection and inability to get to the free throw line, an issue reflective of this Milwaukee team as a whole so far in these playoffs. The percentage of his field goals from three have dropped from 36.6% in the regular season to just 24% thus far. Meanwhile, his 32% free throw rate is down to a paltry 8%. Fear of offensive fouling may have held his purposeful driving back, but he needs to return to a steady diet of shots at the rim, particularly against Boston’s relatively average rim protection, and hopefully force their bigs into foul trouble. Giannis can only garner so much attention and inflict so much pain at the rim.
As a team, Milwaukee’s free throw rate is down to 25.6% from 28.1% in the regular season, the latter of which ranked fourth in the league. At the moment, they’re just a hair above Boston in 12th place for the stat during the Playoffs. In Game Two, only hitting seven free throws is an issue, but only attempting 17 should be more alarming considering how few 3-pointers the Bucks have shot so far. They only made up 29.7% of their attempts in the regular season, a pretty pathetic 25th ranking, but in the Playoffs they’re dead last at just 23.8%. Even Thibs’ TimberZombies have managed to creak above Milwaukee in that regard. Meanwhile, Boston is just 11th in that regard, but 17 3-point attempts for Milwaukee in Game Two is not a recipe for a series win. Eric Bledsoe, even with his sporadic shooting, could stand to get more up if only to keep Boston honest. After the game Jaylen Brown mentioned specifically how Milwaukee going under his screens emboldened him to jack up the 12 3-pointers from deep he launched Tuesday. If Bledsoe’s going to be the difference maker in this series I thought he would be, he needs to draw from that same well of confidence Brown is slurping from.
All of this is without mentioning his woeful defense, where he’s looked indifferent and uninterested in containing Terry Rozier. Zach Lowe touched on this in his column, talking about him wilting on screens like a souffle removed too early, but he hasn’t brought any of the verve he showed throughout the regular season slamming into big guys trying to contain him on the perimeter. About the only guy that looked capable, or interested, in slinging his body around those fools was Sterling Brown, who still got cooked by Marcus Morris’ absurd shotmaking so far this series. Here, Bledsoe sticks with Rozier but gambles for the steal instead of staying directly in front of Rozier and preventing him from an open shot.
Bledsoe is a mammoth when he’s able to get in front of offensive players too (Rozier shimmy aside), but he can move laterally and stand a guy straight up. That’s what makes it all the more perplexing when he refuses to hustle back on defense. Here, he lollygags at halfcourt, tries a blatantly lazy backside steal and leaves his teammates in the lurch as Jaylen Brown drives for a thundering dunk.
Despite all this, the Bucks have managed to be a net positive (+4, but still) with Eric Bledsoe on the court. Despite all the turnovers, troubling shots, hijacking of the offense and horrifically absent defense, the Bucks have still played better with him out there. He is, by far, Milwaukee’s finest option at point guard even with Malcolm Brogdon looking surprisingly spry only a few games back. Bledsoe offers speed and more importantly, defensive mettle that exceeds the President’s potential. Milwaukee needs their go-go point guard engine to quit stalling out, or a sweep is probably imminent.