The Milwaukee Bucks haven’t been in too many close games this season, with only four of their 13 games being decided by fewer than 10 points. Of the nine with a final margin in double digits, the Bucks have won eight.
During their hot start to the season, the Bucks haven’t been in pressure-packed situations often in the fourth quarter. When they have, though, including both games this past weekend to close out their road trip, the Bucks have made something very clear.
They’re going to trust point guard Eric Bledsoe to steer them to victory. While Bledsoe may be the most polarizing player on the team – his athleticism and driving can end in mesmerizing finishes or confounding turnovers – there’s no hesitation in the Milwaukee locker room that they want the ball in his hands.
Even after Bledsoe’s indecision hurt the Bucks in overtime Saturday against the Los Angeles Clippers – an extra period he forced with a strong closing burst and a clutch three-pointer with 6.2 seconds left – Milwaukee went right back to him Sunday in Denver. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t done much in the game heading into the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
The Bucks knew Bledsoe’s ability to blow by defenders to either finish in the lane or kick out to shooters would be instrumental in closing their West Coast trip on the right note.
“With Bledsoe, it doesn’t even matter how the game is going for him you know he’s always going to be there late,” Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “(Saturday) he wasn’t able to make the right play. (Sunday), I think he did a great job making the right plays, making shots, getting in passing lanes, getting steals.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to trust him. You’ve got to pick him up. Whenever your teammate doesn’t feel as good you’ve got to talk to him, pick him up. That’s what I tried to do (Sunday). I told him, ‘This is your show. This is Bledshow. Be aggressive, make plays and we’re going to follow you.’”
That’s exactly what Bledsoe did.
With the Bucks down, 109-105, and less than five minutes to go, Bledsoe scooped up a steal for a much-needed layup that ended a drought that lasted more than two minutes. Following a Denver timeout, Bledsoe hawked Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, blocking his jump shot.
That block set up a fast break, with Bledsoe getting the ball ahead of the pack. He swooped to the hoop for a layup, drawing a foul call on Denver’s Malik Beasley as well. He made the free throw and put the Bucks back in the lead, pulling them out of the malaise that had clouded them throughout the fourth quarter.
“We had to close the game out and that’s what I’m big at,” Bledsoe said, crediting his teammates and coaches with encouraging him and picking him up. “No matter how the game is going, no matter how I’m playing, the fourth quarter is when you got to lock in. No matter the outcomes I’m always trying to live in the moment and not be scared. Turnover, missed shot, whatever happens, I’m going to live with it. Can’t be scared.”
Milwaukee’s late-game reliance on Bledsoe hasn’t been limited to this weekend. According to NBA.com, the Bucks have played five games that have included “clutch” minutes when the game has been within a 10-point window – with the Bucks up or down by fewer than five points – with less than five minutes to go.
Bledsoe has played in virtually all of those minutes and owns the highest usage percentage on the team (36.1 percent), just ahead of Antetokounmpo (31.6 percent). Commonly, those two dynamic play-makers will run pick-and-rolls in late-game situations, putting stress on defenses as the two best Bucks players at creating separation off the dribble. If a team sticks with Antetokounmpo, Bledsoe can turn the corner for a layup. If it doesn’t, Bledsoe’s liable to lob alley-oops, something he did a couple of times against the Clippers.
In clutch situations, Bledsoe has averaged a team-leading 4.2 points while shooting 47.1% and 3 of 3 on three-pointers. He also leads the Buck with 0.6 assists per game, but has offset that number with 0.8 turnovers.
“He really turned it up when it was winning time,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said Sunday. “His intensity, his effort, steals and blocks and then finishing on the other end. It was just a great finish from him.”
Outside of just late-game situations, Bledsoe generally had a strong West Coast trip after a rough offensive start in Portland. He was the primary defender credited with limiting all-NBA guards Damian Lillard (13 points) and Stephen Curry (10 points) to season-lows in back-to-back games. Against the Golden State Warriors, Bledsoe had one of his best games in a Bucks uniform, scoring 26 points on 10 of 12 shooting along with six assists and four rebounds in just 26 minutes.
“He’s a complete player,” Bucks wing Khris Middleton said. “He’s been doing a great job all season, just controlling the team on the offensive end. On the defensive end, I don’t think people realize how many guards he’s had to cover and shut down or make it a living hell for them. He’s been doing a great job all season.”