LOS ANGELES — Call it the $70 million stop.
The Milwaukee Bucks were deadlocked with the Sacramento Kings late Wednesday night, and the East’s best team needed to hold on for 11.4 seconds to force overtime. Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox, a speedy most improved player candidate, received the ball near midcourt and turned to attack from the top of the arc.
Fox went left, and Eric Bledsoe went with him. Fox reversed course after hitting a wall near the free throw line, and Bledsoe hawked him back out behind the three-point line. Fox crossed over to his right; Bledsoe shadowed him, never losing contact. Fox stepped back, as if to launch a contested jumper; Bledsoe pounced, swiping the ball free and then diving on it as the buzzer sounded.
This defensive stand was the type that should make basketball aficionados everywhere nod their heads in quiet appreciation. And as it turned out, the sequence was a heck of a closing argument in negotiations that netted Bledsoe a four-year, $70 million contract extension Friday. No player earns a new big payday off one play, of course, but Bledsoe’s fierce and focused closing effort perfectly encapsulated his role in Milwaukee’s remarkable turnaround.
When the Bucks traded for the 29-year-old guard in November 2017, their coach was on the hot seat, their GM was an untested rookie and Giannis Antetokounmpo looked like yet another small-market star lacking help. Bledsoe, meanwhile, had seen his own career go sideways during a rocky stint with the Phoenix Suns. After enduring multiple coaching changes and ugly tanking seasons, he was banished by Phoenix’s front office for tweeting a trade request early in the 2017-18 season.
Sixteen months later, Bledsoe has rehabilitated his reputation — and earning power — by emerging as the front-line force for the league’s top-ranked defense and a key supporting playmaker on offense. Thanks to Antetokounmpo’s MVP-level play and strong team chemistry, the Bucks have rocketed up the standings with an NBA-best 48-14 record.
“It was an easy decision,” Bledsoe said, after celebrating his new deal with a season-high 31 points in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday. “Why not? We’ve got a talented young team, and we’re growing together. We’re competing for something bigger than ourselves. I want to be a part of that. I’m just happy to be a Milwaukee Buck.”
New coach Mike Budenholzer’s systematic approaches to offense and defense have been central to Milwaukee’s success, and Bledsoe has figured prominently on both ends. With Antetokounmpo doing most of the heavy lifting on offense, Bledsoe has sacrificed his scoring to settle into a secondary role. Defensively, he has been a consistently disruptive presence thanks to his exceptional athletic tools and improved focus.
By displaying a greater attention to detail and a willingness to receive pointed criticism from Budenholzer, Bledsoe has earned his coach’s trust. “I’m beyond excited,” Budenholzer said of the extension. “Sometimes I get on him, and sometimes I love him, but he’s been great. When you find guys who are special on the defensive end, giving them a little rope is usually a positive. I haven’t had anybody who has been given as much rope as he has.”
There’s added symbolic value to the Bucks’ big midseason investment — for two reasons.
First, Bledsoe struggled badly in the 2018 playoffs, appearing overwhelmed by the pressure and intensity. Reaching an extension agreement before the playoffs — rather than waiting to make an offer in July — is a clear sign of Milwaukee’s faith and forgiveness.
Secondly, starters Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon all will enter free agency this summer. Milwaukee’s long-term recruiting pitch to the 24-year-old Antetokounmpo, who can become a free agent in 2021, will hinge on its ability to retain and refine its potent core. Bledsoe’s agreement represents a positive first step, and the move was well received by the most important observer.
“It’s good to have Bledsoe on the same team for the next four years,” Antetokounmpo said, smiling. “It’s a great feeling. In Phoenix, he was playing good but he wasn’t winning. He came here and saw what it takes to win games. His confidence is really high. He’s been playing unbelievable. He definitely deserved what he got today.”
The Bucks are the first team to clinch a spot in the playoffs, and they will reportedly sign Pau Gasol after the veteran center reached a buyout with the San Antonio Spurs. The idea that a two-time champion and future Hall of Famer would willingly leave Gregg Popovich to hop on Milwaukee’s bandwagon as a second-stringer would have sounded ludicrous two seasons ago.
But these aren’t the same old Bucks, and Bledsoe’s role in the franchise’s soaring fortunes has been richly — and rightfully — rewarded.
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