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Podium Guys: How Important Is Eric Bledsoe to the Bucks’ Title Hopes?

The former Sun had a highlight-worthy performance against the Rockets on Tuesday. Milwaukee holds the league’s best record, and now the only question is how far the Bucks will go in the postseason.

Eric Bledsoe blocks a shot by James Harden Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The podium is the NBA postseason’s version of a game ball. With more media packing the locker rooms in the playoffs, the league will often pull certain players out of the fray and up on stage in the interview room. Most of the time, it’s a spot reserved for a team’s star. But occasionally, an unsung hero will swing a game and get their moment in the spotlight. That is what J.A. Adande would call a Podium Game. Here are the under-the-radar players most likely to get one as we barrel toward the big stage of the postseason.

Player: Eric Bledsoe
Team: Milwaukee Bucks
Position: Guard
Numbers: 15.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 54.2 eFG%, 11.0 net rating

How’d he get here?

Bledsoe wouldn’t be here—in Milwaukee, starting at point guard alongside a potential MVP on a title contender—had he not expressed not wanting to be there. “I Dont wanna be here,” Bledsoe tweeted as a member of the Suns in October 2017, three games into the NBA season. The Phoenix organization took “here” to mean, well, Phoenix, and dealt him less than a month later to Milwaukee. It’s been a happy marriage since; Bledsoe is winning again, and the Bucks are really winning again. Milwaukee’s 57-19 record tops the league. The front office wants Bledsoe around to see it through, signing him to a four-year, $70 million extension three weeks ago. He could’ve waited until free agency this summer to re-sign, when he may have had more leverage, but Bledsoe knows what he wants and where he wants to be (and what he does not want and where he does not want to be), and he wants to be on, statistically speaking, the best team in the NBA.

“Right now, we jellin’,” Bledsoe said after re-signing. “I’m around a great group of guys. They like brothers to me. They took me in with open arms last season, and it’s paying off right now, so why not?”

What’s his game like?

This isn’t Bledsoe’s most accurate shooting season (he’s hitting 48 percent from the field), and his 15.8-point average isn’t a career high (that would be 2016-17 in Phoenix, with an average of 21.1 points), but his shot has never been more significant than it is now in Mike Budenholzer’s offense, a perimeter-lined attack designed to clear the way for Giannis Antetokounmpo. (Two of Bud’s bigs, Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic, lead the Bucks in 3-point attempts per game.) Bledsoe has all but eliminated his midrange game, averaging less than a single attempt per game from the antiquated zone, pushing inward to the rim as most of his teammates have stretched out. He’s taking 5.4 shots in the restricted area this season and making them at a 68.6 percent rate—no other guard this season is taking as many with such success. The Bucks’ prerogative might’ve been to open the lane, but it’s not only to get Greek Freaky—Bledsoe’s proved his worth on drives to the lane. At a stocky 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, Bledsoe driving to the hoop is like a log that was picked up by a tornado at the perimeter and carried to the rim by Mother Nature herself.

That accuracy at the rim makes up for Bledsoe’s streaky shooting. On the season, he’s making 32.1 percent of his shots behind the arc, a far cry from his first campaign in Milwaukee (34.9 percent). Bledsoe’s chronological shot chart is a series of peaks and valleys. In January, he shot 24.1 percent from 3; in February, that rose to 40.8 percent; in March, it’s regressed to 31.7 percent. Simply put, he can be inconsistent in an area Milwaukee chose as an identity.

But the Bucks are also known for defense. The stats say Milwaukee has the best defense (its 104.2 defensive rating leads the league), and players forced to face Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe will agree. While Antetokounmpo balances freelancing between the perimeter and the paint, Bledsoe is often assigned the opponent’s best guard. He’s been dialed in this season, and his frenetic on-ball defense has held down what Antetokounmpo’s wingspan can’t reach from across the floor.

What does his team say about him?

Antetokounmpo: “He’s a little guy. But he’s got a big heart.”

Khris Middleton: “He’s an underrated piece. We changed as a team last year when Bled came. When he first got into the league, his nickname was ‘Baby Bron.’ People forgot how athletic, strong and springy he is. We see that every day.”

Budenholzer: “I’m glad he’s going to be with us for the next four years. … It starts on the defensive end. We want to be great there and he’s very special and elite there.”

Malcolm Brogdon: “He’s super important. Offensively, a lot of nights, he leads us. Defensively, he’s the guy that leads us. Night in and night out, he proves what he means to this team. [...] He’s not a guy that gets caught up in the hooray of the attention. He shows up in big games.”

On a scale from Jokic to J.R. Smith, how irrational is his confidence?

There’s no mistaking Bledsoe’s role—or anyone’s role—on the Bucks: second to Antetokounmpo. Everyone comes after the presumptive MVP, who does most of the heavy lifting on the floor (ironic, for a team so spread out in scoring, assisting, and rebounding). But because their head honcho can’t make a 3, the question of “who takes the last shot?” gets a little more complicated. Bledsoe, as has been established, isn’t the most reliable deep threat on the roster. But in a time of need, his confidence to at least try is there, and the Bucks have employed him in those clutch situations before.

What’s his biggest moment so far?

Recency-bias fully admitted, it was Tuesday against the Rockets. The Bucks won 108-94 against one of the best teams in the West. It was a statement game for the Bucks’ place in the rankings, for the East’s place in the league, and for Antetokounmpo’s place in the MVP race, but it was also a statement game for Bledsoe, who finished with 23 points, seven assists, three rebounds, one steal, two blocks, and the respect of an old superior:

“Bled can play, can really play,” Chris Paul told reporters after the game. “He can defend, he can shoot, super-duper athletic. ... He ain’t no backup no more. This ain’t the Clippers.”

Indeed, these Bucks are not the 2012-13 Clippers, who were eliminated in the first round, and Bledsoe isn’t a backup. He limited reigning MVP James Harden to 23 points on 9-for-26 shooting (1-for-9 from deep), and, even more telling, Harden made it to the line only five times, well below his average of 11.0 trips per game.

Why might he swing a playoff game?

The likeliest answer is his defense; another likely answer is a buzzer-beater. Both could happen, and both will be exciting if it’s Bledsoe doing it, whether he’s swarming Kemba Walker or pulling up in his face, the fate of the NBA’s freshest contender in his hands, hands that, two years ago, were put to best use pushing send on a tweet.