The No. 1 overall seed Milwaukee Bucks completed a 4-0 series sweep of the Detroit Pistons in round one of the 2019 NBA Playoffs. The Bucks won all four games by at least 16 points and outscored the Pistons by a total of 95 points. Even with Blake Griffin in the Detroit lineup for last two games, there was nary a thing the team from Michigan could do to overcome the dominance that is the 2018-19 Bucks.
When you have a 6-foot-11, 24-year old unicorn in Giannis Anteotkounmpo, it surely makes life a hell of a lot easier. The Greek Freak could have smacked the Pistons all by himself. He posted 41 points in a closeout Game 4 and averaged over 26 for the series while shooting 52 percent from the field. He is the heart and soul of this Bucks team and they go as far as he takes them – which could very well be to the NBA Finals.
Milwaukee looks to be the best team in the playoffs at this very moment. Some of that has to do with the fact that the Warriors have dropped a game against the Los Angeles Clippers – who could probably sweep the Pistons, as well – and the Bucks played a team that was overmatched before the series even began. But let’s not take away from the beating the Bucks handed the Pistons. Milwaukee has a real shot at making it to the NBA Finals and a sliver of a shot to win the whole thing that gets a bit bigger with every passing game. However, there is one player for Milwaukee that is necessary for a Bucks title run. The X-factor, if you will. And that is Eric Bledsoe.
Aside from Anteotkounmpo, the former Kentucky guard has been the Bucks most reliable player through the first round of the playoffs. I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to imply that Bledsoe has outplayed his other All-Star teammate, Khris Middleton, as well.
Let’s quickly rattle off Bledsoe’s averages in round one: 19.3 points per game, 4.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.0 steals, and 1.8 turnovers per game on shooting splits of 52.5 (FG%)/31.6 (3PT)/81.8 (FT%).
He was unstoppable heading towards the rim. His ball handling was the tightest I’ve ever seen it. He was locking down opponents on every possession. This is the best version of Eric Bledsoe that anyone – including himself – has ever seen, and he’s showing up at the perfect time.
Without starting two-guard Malcolm Brogdon due to injury – an extremely reliable shooter and solid defender – Milwaukee was going to need someone to step up and assert themselves. Brogdon has been out since mid-March and his return is still up in the air. Sterling Brown did a solid job of replacing him, but Bledsoe went into All-Star mode.
Of the 26 players who have averaged at least 10 drives per game during these playoffs, Bledsoe posts the third highest field goal percentage (61.9) behind only Pascal Siakam and Derrick White. That number is higher than James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Kawhi Leonard. But unlike some of those players, such as Westbrook and Harden, Bledsoe isn’t passing out of these drives. He’s just bulldozing through opponents with sneaky euro steps and forearms thicker than most defender’s heads.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Bledsoe has attempted 43 percent of his shots at the rim in the playoffs and has converted on an impossible 83 percent of them. Both numbers rank in the 100 percentile among guards in the playoffs. Just for reference, Antetokounmpo made 74 percent of his shots at the rim. Whenever Bledsoe was able to draw a foul while in the act of shooting, he converted on exactly half of those attempts for an and-one, which also ranks atop the list of playoff guards.
After watching the four games between Milwaukee and Detroit, you could easily make the argument that Bledsoe has been a better finisher at the rim than the elite finishing guards such as Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving. Hell, if you even wanted to compare him to the 7-footers of the NBA world, Bledsoe would still rank higher than them. That’s how good he’s been when attacking.
But it goes further than just scoring for Bledsoe. He’s avoided even the tiniest whiff of foul trouble, has tortured opposing guards for offensive rebounds, and kept the turnovers to a bare minimum.
The Bucks posted an offensive rating of 120.5 and a defensive rating of 95.0 with Bledsoe on the floor against the Pistons. That 95.0 defensive rating is what stands out to me more than the offensive rating. Whenever Bledsoe was on the floor against the Pistons, he accounted for 40 (FORTY) percent of the team’s overall steals. And that’s with a defensive juggernaut in Antetokounmpo manning the middle.
Facing the Celtics in the second round will be completely different than round one. Boston is built on defense. Even when its offense struggled mightily throughout the season, they could always fall back on defense. It happened in the team’s sweep of the Indiana Pacers, too. Boston’s 95.8 defensive rating currently leads all playoff teams. But along with having the third-best defense in the playoffs, the Bucks couple that with the top offense of the postseason and the highest net rating by a considerable margin.
Bledsoe had the pleasure of going head-to-head with the likes of Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith in round one. Kyrie Irving and Terry Rozier won’t be as simple a task to keep at ease. Defending Irving is like trying to stay in front of a hurricane inside of a black hole. But Rozier has struggled this postseason, especially compared to what he did last year, and Marcus Smart is still out with a torn oblique. His status remains undetermined.
The Bledsoe-Irving matchup will be must-watch television. Both are playing the best basketball of their respective careers. The Celtics are miles ahead of the Pistons, but will absolutely struggle to put up points against the Bucks brick wall defense. Boston averaged only 99.3 points per game against the Pacers in round one. Milwaukee averaged over 121 per game and limited Detroit to a mere 98 points per game. I’ve seen several different predictions sending this series to seven games, but I think Boston would be lucky to even make it to a Game 6.
Eric Bledsoe is having the most efficient and effective season of his eight-year career at age 29 on the most dominant team he’s ever played for. Milwaukee is poised to make a run to the Finals. Antetokounmpo will lead them to the promised land, but they can’t get there without this version of Bledsoe.