We’re well past the point where it’s fair to wonder whether Eric Bledsoe is cut out for this stage. It’s imperative for the Milwaukee Bucks to consider this reality now.
The Toronto Raptors have figured out they do not have to defend Milwaukee’s starting point guard in the Eastern Conference finals, and that is a problem for a Bucks offense that revolves around making space for Giannis Antetokounmpo.
There is no nice way to say this: Bledsoe is shook, and this is the second straight year he has looked this way in the playoffs. He is shooting 41.4 percent from the field and 22.6 percent from 3-point range, and the deeper you dig into the numbers, the worse it gets for a guy who was a borderline All-Star during the regular season.
Bledsoe has never been a great 3-point shooter, but he is shooting 7-of-40 (17.5 percent) on wide-open threes in the playoffs, according to the NBA’s data, meaning a defender isn’t within six feet of him. It’s reached the point against the Raptors where the misses aren’t even close, either. Fourteen of his 19 3-point attempts in the conference finals have been wide open, and there wasn’t a defender within four feet on all but one of his long-distance attempts. He has made just two of them.
When the game gets tight, so does he. Bledsoe is 1-for-12 in his career on shot attempts to tie the game or take the lead in the second half of a playoff game, and the lone make is a third-quarter layup against the Boston Celtics in the last round. He is 0-for-8 on such shots in the fourth quarter or overtime against the Raptors. In nine clutch playoff minutes this postseason — when the game is within five points in the final five minutes — he is 0-for-6 from the field with one turnover against zero assists, rebounds and steals. He’s practically disappeared in close playoff games.
Flip it around, and you can see how much the playoff pressure impacts Bledsoe. He is shooting 5-for-11 from three when the Bucks are up by 17 or more points, according to Basketball Reference. Otherwise, he is 9-for-51 (17.6 percent) from distance.
It’s all compounding itself against Toronto. The Raptors are sagging off him and Antetokounmpo, making it far more difficult for either to operate in the paint, where both have been most effective. When Bledsoe does drive, he is seemingly doing so without a plan for when he meets a pack of Toronto’s long-armed defenders. His only effective offensive mode of operation at this point is scoring in transition.
Antetokounmpo’s true shooting percentage rises in these playoffs from 56 percent with Bledsoe on the floor to 64 percent without him, per pbpstats.com. As a result, Milwaukee’s offense has scored 109.4 points per 100 possessions when Bledsoe is on the bench against the Raptors to 98.8 points per 100 when he is in the game. That’s the equivalent of the Bucks dropping from top-10 to league-worst level.
Defensively, Bledsoe is a stud, and the effort continues to be there through his offensive struggles, but he can lose a rotation or get caught trying to help off his man, and Lowry is the sort of assignment who can outsmart you at every turn.
Bledsoe’s turn for the worse got so bad in Toronto that Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer abandoned him for long stretches, benching his starting point guard minutes into each overtime period of Game 3 and playing him only in three-minute spurts of Game 4. Backup George Hill has been a playoff savior, making what was Milwaukee’s eyebrow-raising trade of a first-round pick for him appear prophetic. It’s a wonder Budenholzer hasn’t turned to him more often, and you have to think the Bucks will consider starting Hill if Bledsoe proves detrimental again in Game 5.
“Malcolm [Brogdon] and George have played so well the last few games, I think we felt like maybe trying to get them on the court more,” Budenholzer said of limiting Bledsoe to 20 minutes in a blowout Game 4 loss. “We're going to need Bled. Eric's been great for us, his defense, his ability to attack. We need him to play better.”
Bledsoe reportedly left without speaking to the media on Tuesday after scoring five points on seven shots in a 120-102 loss that tied the series at two games apiece.
The hope for Milwaukee is that Bledsoe performs well enough at home that the Bucks can survive this series. Since they breezed through their first-round series with the Detroit Pistons, Bledsoe is a plus-46 on 40/24/82 shooting splits at home and a minus-17 on 30/11/40 shooting splits on the road. With Games 5 and 7 at Fiserv Forum, there is a chance he won’t subvert these conference finals entirely.
But this Bledsoe problem may have ramifications well beyond the next two or three games. The lights only get brighter in the Finals, where the possibility of getting outright embarrassed by the Golden State Warriors’ potent backcourt looms. Can the Bucks beat the two-time defending champs with Hill and a not-fully-healthy Brogdon as their best backcourt options? Both may be better than Bledsoe at this point of the season, and that raises further questions about the team’s future.
The Bucks already signed Bledsoe to a four-year, $70 million extension in March, cementing him as the starting point guard for the remainder of Antetokounmpo’s current contract. At the time, it seemed like a bargain deal for a guy who was playing at an All-Defensive level while averaging a fairly efficient 15.9 points, 5.5 assists and 4.6 rebounds in less than 30 minutes per game for a 60-win team.
Now? They’ve committed significant money to a guy who has played himself off the floor in two straight postseasons. The logic was sound. The Bucks won’t have cap space to chase top-flight free agents, and re-signing Khris Middleton to a max deal this summer would further limit their options. They have two more years to show Antetokounmpo they are committed to building a winner around him, and what better way than to lock up a key member of the franchise’s best team in decades?
The question is whether that will come at the cost of the rest of the roster. Brogdon is a restricted free agent this summer, and Hill’s $18 million contract for next season is non-guaranteed. Is Milwaukee’s ownership willing to invest what it would take to keep a capable playoff backcourt together when Antetokounmpo and Middleton will be earning close to $60 million combined in 2019-20? The small-market Bucks would be into the luxury tax before they even consider re-signing Brook Lopez.
These are questions for another day in Milwaukee, but that day may come sooner than the Bucks would like if they don’t have answers for the Bledsoe problem now.
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