May 15, 2012; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker (9) is defended by Los Angeles Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe (12) during the first half in game one of the Western Conference semifinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-US PRESSWIRE
Mark Travis is a blogger/journalist in Texas. He has submitted the following column to Clips Nation. Steve
When two guys like Chris Paul and Tony Parker go head-to-head against other in a series, it's hard to imagine a third point guard stealing the show from those two. They've both had brilliant careers and wound up finishing in the top five in MVP voting this season together (Paul at three, Parker at five).
But through two games, neither Paul nor Parker has played all that well - Paul because of injury, Parker because of a certain someone I'm about to mention - which has opened up the stage for Eric Bledsoe to host his coming out party. Bledsoe had some good games against the Grizzlies in round one, but now that he's up against the Spurs, who have higher profile players for him to battle with, the Kentucky product's game is really coming into form.
For a second year guard that posted pretty poor defensive numbers during the regular season, Bledsoe has done a brilliant job defensively on Parker and Manu Ginobili. Vinny Del Negro was won over by Bledsoe's kinetic and indefatigable defensive style during the Memphis series so much so that nearly every time the Spurs put Manu Ginobili into the game, VDN calls on Bledsoe to defend him.
"He's so athletic," said Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro. "He's so physical. It's his first playoffs but I'm just so proud of Eric and the way he battles and he's getting a feel for things a bit better. You can see his athleticism, his strength, his power out there. His speed. And he's just getting more comfortable as he gets more of an opportunity."
The Clippers were unable to capture a victory in the first two games of this series but the fact that Clippers were even in those two games for stretches in the second half despite getting next to nothing from Paul is due in large part to Bledsoe's incredible individual effort defensively.
"I believe that defense is going to win this series," Bledsoe said. "So if I set the tone on that end of the floor I believe my teammates will pick it up and it will give us a chance to win."
You can count on one hand the players capable of successfully defending both Parker and Ginobili, especially in the same game. They are two fabulously unique players. Parker one of the quickest point guards with the basketball in the entire league and the founding father of the modern day floater; Ginobili perhaps the most crafty ball-handler in the league with a flair for the unimaginable pass and quirky yet effective pull-up shot. These two have their way with defenses regularly, and yet, Bledsoe has completely shut them down when he's been on them.
Parker has rarely gotten into the paint with Bledsoe checking him. I've never seen a player stick to his hip better on pick-and-rolls than Bledsoe. Ginobili has a considerable size advantage on Bledsoe but the 6'1" guard has been done a tremendous job contesting his shots, especially at the basket. Watching Bledsoe elevate after riding Ginobili's hip on drives and actually get well above Manu has been incredible to watch. In game two Bledsoe was a bit too eager to get to Ginobili's shots, which led to a few fly bys on pump-fakes, but overall he's done a great job on him.
"I just try to frustrate (Tony and Manu) as much as possible," Bledsoe said. "I know they are pretty much going to get their numbers but I want to make it as tough as possible while they are doing it."
And that's exactly what Bledsoe has did in the first two games of this series. Ginobili has shot just 38% from the floor and 33% from deep thus far and Parker has been even worse, shooting just 33% from the field while turning the ball over nearly four times a game.
"Just keeping them from penetrating," said Bledsoe about what is he trying to do against Manu and Parker defensively. "They are a great team ball movement wise, so we just have to stop their penetration by Ginobili and Parker."
Bledsoe's swiftness and perplexing lateral movement on the defensive of the floor has often invigorated his teammates, and the result has been LA's bench unit being far superior to their starting unit in terms of defensive stability. Not all of that can be credited to Bledsoe - any time the Clippers break up the Griffin/Jordan frontcourt paring they are bound to improve on the defensive end - but in large part, that group rotates better because of all of the ground Bledsoe can cover off the ball and how well he prevents dribble penetration on the ball.
According to Basketball Value, with Bledsoe on the floor this post-season, the Clippers are giving up 98.58 points per 100 possessions. When Bledsoe is on the bench, Los Angeles is allowing 109.94 points per 100 possessions. That is a difference of -11.36 PPPu with Bledsoe off the floor. Quite simply, Los Angeles won't be able to survive with Bledsoe off the floor against the Spurs. This was made clear by the first two games of this series and a 35 minute threshold should be the minimum we see from Bledsoe in the remaining games of this series.
With the top point guard in the league struggling and clearly hobbled, Bledsoe kept the Clippers respectable for the majority of those first two games. His efforts on the defensive end of the floor had him flowing with confidence in game one, fueling him to put up a monster 23-point (10-of-16 shooting), five rebounds, four assists and three steals line. He had a more limited offensive game on Thursday night but his impact was still felt in other areas of the game. If Los Angeles can get the usual Chris Paul back for game three and can continue to get the incredible jolt that Bledsoe is giving them off the bench, they have a chance to revive their chances of pulling off an upset in this series, especially with three of the next four games (provided the Clippers win enough to force four more games) being at home.
Looking past this post-season, the Clippers will have to re-consider their presumed stance on Bledsoe. Once Paul arrived it was commonly believed that the Clippers would use Bledsoe as a trade chip to help bring in another big or wing scorer. The acquisition of guys like Kenyon Martin and Nick Young dampened those needs for this season. But because they are both on one year deals, those needs will likely be there again next season and after his play this post-season, teams will be lining up to make offers for Bledsoe.
Even so, I would advise the Clippers against dealing Bledsoe even if he plays the same position as their best player and a potential trade would patch up other holes on the roster. Assuming Mo Williams picks up his player option for next season, he'd be a much easier piece to let go and would still garner some interest and a valuable return.
Seeing Bledsoe on the defensive end during this post-season has opened my eyes to the possibility of him being one of the first editions of a brand new kind of sixth man candidate. Guys like Jason Terry, James Harden, Lou Williams and even Money Mo are the traditional sixth men. They are players that can come in and light it up, providing their team with an offensive spark. But if we are to take Harden out of the conversation - he was the clear cut sixth man of the year this season and was so good that he vaulted his way into top three shooting guard territory - it's hard to find bench players that were more valuable than Chicago's Taj Gibson or Omer Asik.
You don't hear a lot about those guys unless you are an NBA nut, and especially not as sixth man candidates, but they completely change the complexion of games when they come in because they are so good defensively. According to Basketball Value, nobody in the league had better individual defensive ratings than Gibson and Asik this season and Gibson had the best defensive +/- in the NBA. Assuming the Clippers can either keep Kenyon Martin or acquire a big man that operates well defensively* to help solidify the second unit, I can very well see Bledsoe being one of those kinds of players that comes in and unconditionally transform his team's defensive outlook and reeks havoc on opposing ball-handlers on a nightly basis.
*Here's a thought: The Clippers can actually sign Asik this summer if the financially tight Bulls can't hold onto him. That kind of move would do wonders for this club's defense. He's likely to get some big offers but if Los Angeles has a shot at him they have to take it.
Bledsoe gives the Clippers some extremely rare perimeter defense and he continues to grow into his own offensively all while he's on a dirt cheap rookie contract until the end of the 2013-14 season. The Clippers may have been thinking about trading Bledsoe earlier this season but I'd imagine that his stellar efforts this post-season will keep him in Los Angeles for many years to come.