When Milwaukee Bucks point guard Eric Bledsoe steps onto the court at TD Garden on Sunday in Game 1 of his team’s playoff series against the Boston Celtics, it will represent an accomplishment in his journey back to the postseason.
The last time he appeared in the playoffs was as a 16-minute-per-game spark plug off the bench for the Los Angeles Clippers — back in 2013.
For much of the five years since, Bledsoe’s been wandering the desert in search of a way back to the promised land of the postseason. There’s a literal element to that wandering, as Bledsoe’s Phoenix Suns never reached the playoffs in his four seasons in the Valley of the Sun. There’s a figurative sense, too, as Bledsoe was still learning about himself and growing as a person and player in the process.
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“I’ve grown a lot,” Bledsoe said Friday following the Bucks’ practice at their downtown training facility. “From coming off the bench to playing in Phoenix to now, I think I got a lot (more) mature in a lot of ways.
“Knowing how to run plays in the half court, knowing when to get my teammates involved and when to attack. Just a lot of things. Knowing when to be calm when teams go on a run.”
Of course, Bledsoe was never expecting to be out of the playoffs this long. When he arrived in Phoenix in 2013 he was traded to the Suns. At that point, the Suns were a young, rebuilding team but they surprised everyone by winning 48 games in 2013-’14.
Most years, 48 wins are enough for a trip to the playoffs. That season, though, it left the Suns one game short. That season was followed by three years of struggle as Phoenix changed coaches and committed itself to a rebuild around high draft picks and young talent.
Those decisions left Bledsoe stuck in a difficult situation. He wanted to compete at a high level and knew he could.
“You definitely get tired of not being able to compete for a championship, but at the same time every situation is a learning experience,” Bledsoe said. “I learned a lot being in Phoenix. …
“Even when we didn’t make it I saw growth and it helped me be a better leader over there, a leader in adversity when times are hard. It only helped me in those aspects.”
Bledsoe, 28, was arguably at his best last season in Phoenix, putting up career highs with 21.1 points and 6.3 assists per game. But with about a month left in the season, the Suns opted to shut him down, citing left knee soreness as the reason. But the fact that they were out of contention and had nothing to gain by winning likely played into that call.
It was a decision that left Bledsoe unhappy because he wanted to play. It became no secret over the following months that Bledsoe wanted to find a way out of Phoenix’s rebuild and onto the roster of a team that would compete for the playoffs.
The disconnect between Bledsoe and the Suns came to a head in October when Bledsoe tweeted, “I Dont wanna be here.” He maintains that the tweet wasn’t about the Suns, but Phoenix’s front office didn’t see it that way, with general manager Ryan McDonough sending Bledsoe home indefinitely while the Suns sought a trade partner.
In came the Bucks with a package that included a pair of protected picks and center Greg Monroe, who interestingly enough is now with the Celtics and will face his former team in the playoffs. That trade occurred on Nov. 7 with Bledsoe joining his new teammates in San Antonio, playing with the Bucks for the first time on Nov. 10 in a win over the Spurs.
“Bled’s huge for this team and we’ve been very consistent with that,” Bucks coach Joe Prunty said.
Bledsoe finished the season averaging 17.8 points, 5.1 assists and 2.0 steals in 71 games with the Bucks. While he was solid before the all-star break, Bledsoe especially stood out in the 25 games after it.
His shooting numbers went up, with Bledsoe going 51.4% from the field and 40.0% on three-pointers after the break. Bledsoe’s assists and rebounds went up, too, even as his usage went down. He picked his spots better, made good decisions and made numerous clutch plays, especially in his 39-point performance to lift the Bucks over the Los Angeles Lakers.
“That’s what it was, trying to figure out how to affect the team without stepping on no one’s toes,” Bledsoe said when asked about adjusting to his new team.
“At the same time, the team traded for me for a reason. … I was doing the same thing in the second half as the first half, my shots just weren’t falling. I stuck with it, kept getting in the gym, kept shooting the ball and never lost confidence. That was the big thing.”
As the Bucks head into the postseason, there’s no doubt Bledsoe has found his rhythm both with his teammates and within the team’s structure. Having seen what he can do, Bledsoe’s teammates are collectively excited for what he’ll do on the big stage of the playoffs.
“Bled’s excited, man,” center John Henson said. “You’ll probably see some of his best play. I’m predicting that; quote me on that.”
Bledsoe’s just excited to — after years of swimming upstream with Phoenix in the Western Conference — have his chance to compete for the league’s ultimate prize once again.
“(In the past) I’d be one of those players going home around this time planning to see where I’m going to go on vacation with my kids and wife,” Bledsoe said. “Now I’m in there competing for something bigger, something I wanted and dreamed about. …
“This is what I wanted, competing for a championship at some point in my career. It came sooner than I thought. I’m prepared and ready. This is what I’ve been preparing for.”