A year ago, the Milwaukee Bucks fell in seven games to the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, winning all of their home games but failing to provide much of a test for the Celtics in Beantown.
Part of the failing of the Bucks was the lack of production from the point guard position. Eric Bledsoe struggled mightily in five of the seven games, getting outplayed by his counterpart, Terry Rozier. After arriving in Milwaukee barely over a week into the year after his infamous exit from Phoenix, Bledsoe had a solid regular season before simply being unable to produce come playoff time. The Bucks needed him to pick up the slack, as second-year guard Malcolm Brogdon couldn’t get going, either.
This year, the Bucks will likely be the top seed in the East, but, like last year, how successful they can be in the postseason may ride on the shoulders of Bledsoe. Brogdon is currently out with a minor plantar fascia tear and his status for the playoffs remains unknown at this time — at best, it would seem he’ll return after a lengthy layoff and be dealing with some rust. That means Bledsoe, who is in the midst of arguably the best year of his career, will have to come up big in the postseason.
With a system change under new head coach Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks offense has been opened up tremendously and Bledsoe is thriving. The Bucks have a much more egalitarian approach to offense this season, sharing the wealth and spreading around the usage, taking advantage of their various weapons. Giannis Antetokounmpo, perhaps the frontrunner for league MVP, leads the way, but everyone else is sharing responsibility far more than a year ago. Bledsoe, for example, has seen his usage rate with Milwaukee drop from 26 a year ago to 22.6 this season.
That has led to a more efficient Bledsoe, with a career best 54.4 effective field goal percentage and a 2.59:1 assist-to-turnover ration, the best of his career by a significant margin. On a Bucks team that boasts a top-5 offensive rating in the league, only Nikola Mirotic, who has played 14 games with the team, has a better on-court ORtg than Bledsoe’s 114.2. His net rating of +11 is third on the team to Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez among players who have played over 500 minutes this season.
He also appears more committed on the defensive end than we’ve seen in recent years, helped in part by the lighter load he’s asked to carry offensively. Bledsoe has always had a reputation of being a tenacious defender when he’s engaged, and this season, he’s proven that to still be the case. He earned praise for his defense against James Harden, in which he took it upon himself to coordinate the plan of attack against the reigning league MVP, significantly overplaying him by forcing him right at all times.
This didn’t stop Harden from putting up numbers, but it limited his effectiveness passing the ball and creating easy opportunities for his teammates, as Mike Zavagno diagrammed recently.
Bledsoe being that engaged defensively, both in the game plan and the execution, only further illustrates how his fit and comfort with this team and this staff has opened up his game and allowed him to shine. The question, of course, is whether he can continue to be this effective in the postseason. The optimist’s take on the Bucks entering the postseason this year is that the balance they’ve maintained in the regular season bodes well for what they’ll do come playoff time, which is huge for a player like Bledsoe, who has thrived for this exact reason.
Bledsoe recently talked with Dime through Dove Men+Care as part of their Rep The Rivalry campaign, promoting their Battle of the Bluegrass jersey, and highlighted the importance for him of playing for a coach that has his back and will let him be him.
“It’s very important to have that fit, ’cause the coach is going to ride with whatever decisions you make,” Bledsoe said. “I feel like I have that with Coach Bud and he has that with each and every guy on the team to where he can talk to us about anything, and I think that’s huge for me as a point guard.”
Having that support from the bench seems to be leading to Bledsoe playing more freely, and that may be as big a factor as anything for him in the playoffs. A year ago he seemed tense in the postseason, as did the Bucks as a whole when on the road. This season, they’ll look to stay loose and keep that trust in each other and the system (along with homecourt advantage throughout) to power them through the Eastern Conference playoffs and to the Finals.
Antetokounmpo is the engine of this team. Bledsoe notes that the biggest difference he’s seen out of Giannis this season in his potential MVP campaign is how he’s being more vocal and taking more responsibility as the leader of the team. However, as we’ve seen in recent history, a great player still needs contributions at the right times from his supporting cast to get by other top teams. Middleton will need to keep up his All-Star form. Lopez, Mirotic, and the rest of Milwaukee’s floor spacers will have to knock down shots to keep the paint open for Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe.
However, given the position, Bledsoe is as important as any of Giannis’ supporting cast in lifting them to a Finals appearance. He needs to be able to take some of the creative pressure off of Antetokounmpo, help the star find some easy buckets, and serves as the point of attack for one of the league’s best defensive units. Sports don’t always offer immediate redemption to players, but this year, Bledsoe has a chance to rewrite the narrative of his playoff performance from a year ago. If he does, the sky’s the limit for Milwaukee.