Eric Bledsoe’s return to the court couldn’t have come at a better time for the Phoenix Suns. They had compiled a 3-6 record in their previous nine games and fell out of the NBA playoff picture in the process. Now it’s time for E-Bled to embrace the alpha-dog role and lead Phoenix into the playoffs.
With just 16 games remaining in the regular season—including a March 17 road matchup against the Brooklyn Nets—the Suns sit one game behind the Memphis Grizzlies for ninth place in the Western Conference. Since the Grizz have dominated Phoenix in 2013-14—winning all three meetings thus far—they hold the tiebreaker with the Suns should both teams finish with the same record at season’s end.
That leaves Phoenix climbing an uphill battle, especially since 10 of the remaining 16 games will be played on the road.
The Suns have been vastly mediocre away from the friendly confines of US Airways Center, as they are 16-15 in road games. Barring a total collapse from the Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks or Golden State Warriors, it’s fair to say .500 basketball won’t launch the Suns into a postseason seed.
That’s what makes Bledsoe’s comeback so important.
Team Success with Bledsoe
Prior to undergoing knee surgery that kept him out for more than two months, Bledsoe led the Suns to a 16-8 record when he was in the lineup. In three games since his return, Phoenix has continued that win/loss ratio with a 2-1 mark in three games.
The Kentucky product has posted solid numbers after the hiatus with averages of 15.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. However, he’s also shown evident signs of rust by shooting just 39.4 percent from the field and 11.1 percent from the three-point arc (one of nine).
Head coach Jeff Hornacek needs his point guard to show off the shooting efficiency he displayed before getting sidelined. He’s limited turnovers and set up teammates for scores, but his own scoring prowess hasn’t been on point.
With that said, Bledsoe is still being aggressive enough to draw contact and get to the line.
In the last three games, the 24-year-old has gotten to the charity stripe 7.3 times per contest. That includes making all 10 of his free-throw attempts on March 16 against the Toronto Raptors (a 121-113 road win).
Although the Suns are a team that loves to push the tempo—they rank sixth in the NBA in pace, per ESPN—getting easy points at the free-throw line equates to easy offense. It also allows Phoenix to set up its halfcourt defense, which was sputtering with Bledsoe out of the rotation.
In five March games before Bledsoe's return, the Suns were surrendering an average of more than 114 points per game. They gave up 37 first-quarter points to the Atlanta Hawks and allowed the Oklahoma City Thunder to explode for 41 points in the first 12 minutes during that span.
Giving up more than 114 points per game on average is worse than the Philadelphia 76ers' 30th-ranked defense—which allows 110.8 points per game. It was becoming a debilitating factor that simply had to be fixed. The Suns weren't going to win games with any sort of consistency without being adequate defensively.
Since Bledsoe's return, opponents are scoring 101 points per contest—thanks in large part to holding the Boston Celtics to 80 points on March 14.
"Having Eric in is a whole other dynamic," starting forward P.J. Tucker said, per AZCentral Sports' Paul Coro. "He's so good on the ball that the weak side doesn't have to help as much, so it's a lot of one-on-one defense and pull over on pick-and-rolls."
According to Basketball Reference, the Suns are surrendering 103.6 points per 100 possessions when Bledsoe is on the court. When he's on the bench (via substitution or injury), the offensive rating of opponents climbs to 107.8 points per 100 possessions.
Additionally, opponents shoot 47.4 percent against the Suns when the upstart point guard is on the court and 50.3 percent when he's on the bench.
The five-man lineup of Bledsoe, Tucker, Goran Dragic, Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee has outscored opponents by 57 points while holding opponents to under one point per possession (0.99), according to 82games.com.
Opponents are also shooting a paltry 41.8 percent against that rotation.
It's quite clear that the Suns are a vastly superior defensive squad when Bledsoe is on the court. He's a tenacious on-ball defender who fights around screens and uses his lateral quickness to stifle matchups who try to drive past him.
Not only will team defense be important in terms of securing a playoff berth; it will also be integral if Phoenix hopes to pull off a potential first-round upset.
While playing 10 of their remaining 16 games on the road certainly doesn't favor the Suns' playoff aspirations, half of those affairs come against teams with losing records: Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons, Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings.
Those are all beatable teams if Bledsoe and Co. stick to the formula that has put the desert dwellers 10 games over .500 as of March 17.
The biggest games left on the schedule by a wide margin, however, are the April 12 matchup at Dallas and the April 14 head-to-head against Memphis.
Those two teams directly above Phoenix in the Western Conference standings are obstacles the Suns are trying to overcome. If Bledsoe's previous performances are any indication, he'll have his hands full with at least one of those matchups.
|Dec. 21 vs. DAL||9-12||3-4||25||4||6|
|Dec. 3 @ MEM||4-13||0-3||9||3||5|
Although the floor general carved up the Mavericks' shoddy defense on Dec. 21 to the tune of 25 points on 9-of-12 shooting, he couldn't get anything going against the defensive-minded Grizzlies.
Will the Suns make the playoffs this year?
With Mike Conley and Tony Allen in the backcourt, Memphis arguably has the best defensive guard tandem in the Association. On Dec. 3, they put their talents on display by frustrating Bledsoe and forcing him into a 4-of-13 shooting night.
I believe that the Suns' playoff hopes will depend upon their performance in the final three games of the season. With games against Dallas, Memphis and Sacramento (who beat Phoenix twice in November), fans may ultimately face a gut-wrenching end to a magical season.
If Bledsoe can return to All-Star-caliber form, however, expect the surprising Suns to see a first-round playoff matchup on the calendar.