Bledsoe to 'just focus on the game' in first return to Phoenix

NBA.com Global on Nov 22, 2017 07:32 AM
Bledsoe to 'just focus on the game' in first return to PHO
Photo c/o @Bucks

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

MILWAUKEE – There’s a rite of passage that comes with a player’s exit from the Phoenix Suns. That’s how Markieff Morris sees it anyway, after witnessing the departures of Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas and his twin brother Marcus and then experiencing it for himself at the league’s trade deadline in February 2016.

Now it’s Eric Bledsoe’s turn. The former Phoenix Suns point guard will play at Talking Stick Resort Arena Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time) for the first time since his rancorous final days with the team, and he’ll do so as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks.

In Morris’ mind, there was no other way for Bledsoe to leave the Suns than awkwardly and unhappily.

“Oh hell no. No way. Because everybody exits like that,” Morris, Washington’s starting power forward, said after the Wizards’ 99-88 victory over the Bucks Monday (Tuesday, PHL time). “It’s a recurring thing in Phoenix, man. It’s unfortunate, but you move on. You live. You learn.”

Bledsoe, who approached All-Star status during his four full seasons in Phoenix, unceremoniously departed with a thud earlier this month after separating himself in spirit via, of all things, social media. His Tweet after the Suns’ 0-3 start (“I Don’t wanna be here”) was enough to convince general manger Ryan McDonough, who first coach Earl Watson and informed Bledsoe and interim replacement Jay Triano that the guard would not participate in games, practices or other functions.

The estrangement lasted 16 days until McDonough traded Bledsoe to Milwaukee on Nov. 7 (Nov. 8, PHL time) for big man Greg Monroe and protected first- and second-round draft picks in 2018. The sturdy 6'1" point guard has been with the Bucks for two weeks now, helping them go 4-0 in his initial appearances before dropping a pair of lackluster performances at Dallas Saturday and against Washington.

Bledsoe, late Monday (Tuesday, PHL time), was careful not to say anything to enflame the situation in Phoenix. But the smile that crept across his face a couple of times – first when he brought up the return game, then when asked more directly about it – made it clear this would not be just one of 82.

“Everybody knows what happened. The situation that went down,” Bledsoe said. “I’ve just got to come out and play my game and not worry about nothing else.”

As for the booing that seems inevitable – at 7-11 overall, Phoenix is nearly .500 since he last played there – Bledsoe said: “I mean, who knows? I love the fans. I hope they love me back. But you know how that goes. I love my teammates who I played with while I was there. I’m gonna just focus on the game. I’ve got great [Bucks] teammates who have my back.”

The soon-to-be-28-year-old (his birthday is Dec. 9) has posted averages not far off his career marks: 12.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists. His defensive energy and impact have been good. But his shooting has been down – 36.1 percent overall, 16.0 percent from the arc and even 73.9 from the line – and the Bucks have hit less than 28 percent of their three-pointers four times in his six appearances.

For now, they’re not troubled by the trend but they do need to perk up as they begin a protracted four-game trip out West, starting in Phoenix and ending Nov. 30 (Dec. 1, PHL time) at Portland.

“We’ve just got to run. Just have fun,” Bledsoe said. “I feel like we’re not having fun a little bit right now. That’s the biggest thing. We’ve got to loosen up a little bit. I think we’re a little uptight.”

Bledsoe knows the Bucks are built around versatile Giannis Antetokounmpo and that his role is to provide a complement to the offense that budding star creates.

“I’m with a talented group of guys who can also make plays,” he said. “So I’ve got to try to find my game a little bit. It takes time.”

In adding Bledsoe, the Bucks shifted last year’s Rookie of the Year, Malcolm Brogdon, into a supporting role. So they have a learning curve to match the new guy’s. 

“Just knowing your teammates’ tendencies, knowing a new offense – it is kind of like adding a new quarterback,” Bucks resident old head Jason Terry said. “You’ve got to learn a new system on the fly, and that’s tough. You’ve got to learn your new teammates. ‘Where do they like the ball at?’ And the last thing comes yourself. ‘Where can I get the ball and be more effective?’”

Virtually no one on either side Monday night doubted Bledsoe will have the desired impact in time. The Bucks already play faster with him aboard, and 4-2 is better than the 4-6 mark that greeted him. Besides Morris, who calls Bledsoe “my guy” and “the ultimate competitor,” there was John Wall. Wall, the Wizards’ star point guard, teamed with Bledsoe at Kentucky in their one collegiate season, 2009-10.

As pros, in 12 head-to-head outings, Bledsoe actually has better numbers. He has averaged 16.3 points in 27.9 minutes to Wall’s 20.1 in 38 minutes. The Washington guard has the edge in assists, 9.1 to 4.5, but Bledsoe has outshot him 45 percent to 38 percent. Bledsoe’s teams have won seven of the 12 meetings.

“It’s been funny,” Wall said. “We know each other’s tendencies, we’ve been practicing against each other for years. When we’re competing, we’re talking junk to each other, trying to outdo the next guy, going back and forth.”

There figures to be a lot of junk talked Wednesday night (Thursday, PHL time) in the Valley of the Sun, with Bledsoe’s return. When Morris went back to face the Suns for the first time, he did so on April 1, 2016. So his Wizards teammates took the occasion – April Fool’s Day – to hang a Phoenix jersey in his visiting dressing stall, with his old Suns name plate and orange sneakers overhead.

He wound up scoring 21 points with nine rebounds and four blocked shots in a Washington victory, and shrugged off the boos. “You could see how I played,” Morris said that night. “It don’t affect me. I’ve been booed 100,000 times way worse than that.”

Morris believes Bledsoe will have the last laugh too, if not on Wednesday then eventually. The $10,000 the organization fined him for his Tweet could end up being a smart investment.

“He got up out of there,” Morris said. “I mean, sometimes it takes that to get somewhere you want to be. You pay a couple dollars ... you might get it back. Playoff money, just that alone.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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