Were you aware Eric Bledsoe struggled in last year’s playoff series against the Boston Celtics? If not, welcome back to society after your extended sojourn beneath a rock. Bledsoe’s failures in the 2018 postseason have followed him like a foul stench ever since. It lingered over the offseason discussion and he never put it to bed after several tough regular season outings against the Celtics. So prevalent is the narrative, he’s basically had two feature stories on ESPN primarily focused on overcoming it.
Following game one, those questions lingered with a ghostly performance on both ends en route to just six points on five shots in 25 measly minutes. In game two, he buttoned up his preacher jacket and exorcised those demons, for now. For Milwaukee, those last two words are most important. He hit his sweet spot, 21 points on just 12 shots with two blocks and five assists. When he’s churning that stat line out alongside a boiling Khris Middleton and aggressive Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee is tough to beat.
“When Eric’s really good, we’re really good,” Mike Budenholzer proclaimed. Giannis’ greatness means the Bucks can perhaps beat Boston even with a less than stellar Bledsoe, but this team is no longer settling for deflated expectations of Bucks’ seasons past. This team had historic levels of dominance. Their aspirations are at the point where “really good” is needed, ergo, “really good Eric” is needed. Let’s explore how he made his impact felt across game two.
Driving to Paydirt
With Malcolm Brogdon out, the Bucks are essentially reliant on Giannis and Bledsoe to be their primary drivers. This is how Milwaukee has won all year, thump the opponent at the basket and strike at them from long range. It’s ruthlessly efficient, but game one featured too little success at either strategy. Game two was still a sub-par effort in the paint, but Bledsoe did a far better job being aggressive. After averaging 11 drives per game in the regular season, Bledsoe seemed timid to attack the tin in game one, only driving seven times. Look at this open floor, where he’s got a shot to drive past Marcus Morris but instead settles for a contested jumper.
Sure, the floor isn’t balanced perfectly since Horford could help off Giannis in the near corner given he’s not a shootin threat out there, but it’s the mindset that matters in this instance. Bledsoe has burners that can match almost anyone in the league. He warped into ludicrous speed much more in game two. The Celtics switchability helps them forge a formidable defensive wall, but also can expose frontcourt players to Bledsoe’s Sonic speed. Stephen Curry cooks big men from outside, Bledsoe needs to use his unique abilities to make opponents pay his way. Case in point, this cruel act on Al Horford.
Rozier gets turned around on the switch, trying feebly to keep track of Lopez rumbling above the break for a potential kickout and opening the floor. Bledsoe takes advantage of the space to scoot by Horford. He drove 13 times in game two, looking to score almost every time he went to the rack by passing out on just two of those drives. He was stuck in neutral game one, just stay in drive Eric.
Read the Room
Too often in game one, the Bucks missed their read while dribbling into the teeth of the Celtics defense. Whether it was getting stripped, falling down or not seeing the open shooter quick enough, Bledsoe was as guilty as any Buck for not finding the spot-up gunner in time. Here’s a prime example:
Bledsoe could be drawing the defense’s eyes here before a kickout to Sterling Brown, but instead he bungles the possession. Tunnel vision sets in, and Boston defenders swarm on him like Milwaukee natives to a Friday fish fry. Not to mention the fact he won’t get a chance to spot George Hill slinking up the arc for a potential outlet pass. Contrast that with this game two sequence. While he dives deep into the forest, he keeps his composure and flicks a pass out through the trees to an awaiting Connaughton in the corner.
It’s still a tad slow for my liking, he could’ve used a little extra spidey sense there, but it gets the job done. He practiced patience later in the game too, drawing Celtics defenders until the very last second to unleash Middleton for a barrage from deep that split the game wide open. There’s less room than ever for Milwaukee’s shooters to find space on the perimeter in this series. Sterling Brown isn’t going to be the playmaker he was in the first round. Bledose needs to be a speed reader this series, and put the Bucks role players in position to succeed in their lane this series.
Everyone knows Bledsoe’s defensive reputation. Locked in, the way he shadows opponents seems effortless. He can bash through screens and slither in front of other guards to the point they’re gasping for air after one possession. Outside of a few fleeting moments to open game one, that clamp-down D was nowhere to be found. Bledsoe, at his best, is a player you can feel on the court. Here, his sheer athleticism is on full display:
To be able to recover from several feet, and block one of the league’s trickiest finishers, is no small feat. Matchup data from each game doesn’t demonstrably paint his impact as noticeably better from one game to the other, but those also only reflect players who spent the majority of a possession matched up against one another, not always the final action of a possession.
Together, George Hill and Eric Bledsoe held Kyrie Irving to just 4-12 shooting in game two, a fabulous feat given his outrageous shotmaking ability. Oh ya, and old friend Scary Terry went 0-5 too. Milwaukee’s increased switching in game two helped corral Kyrie too, but there’s no denying the “breathing down your neck” quality of defense Bledsoe can inflict upon opponents. He sets the defensive tempo for this team, one only needs to look at those Rockets wins for evidence.
This whole season, Bledsoe has been prone to slink into the shadows occasionally, but the Bucks can’t afford for him to lapse this postseason. The spotlight is shining brighter than ever on the Bledshow. Milwaukee needs him to be a showstopper, or eventually it will be curtains on this storybook season.