ERIC BLEDSOE: PLAYOFF BREAKOUT PERFORMER THIS OFFSEASON
Eric Patten (@ericpatten) | 5/28/12

Eric Bledsoe was in front of his locker inside FedEx Forum after the Clippers' 82-72 series-clinching victory over the Grizzlies.

His stall was near the entrance and he was one of the first Clippers to be swarmed by the media in the postgame scrum. He was shirtless and still wearing his game shorts and after a couple of questions about the game, a reporter asked if he liked playing the physical brand of basketball that was demanded in their two-week matchup with Memphis.

The soft-spoken Bledsoe, who on occasion could be construed as camera shy, looked down. And just as it appeared he might deflect the question with a cliché, he raised his arms a few inches and said, "Yeah, I like playing physical." He grinned and looked down again to make certain everyone noticed his well-defined chest and arms. It was his way of saying, "Look at me. I'm built for this."

And he really is.

He's 6-foot-1, but plays like he's a foot taller, evident when he rejected a face up jump hook from 6-foot-11 Mareesse Speights. He's got a bounce to him that few athletes have. The second-year guard's long arms and quick feet make him an ideal wing defender. In Memphis he shut down Mike Conley and against San Antonio he was called upon to swap assignments between Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, two future Hall of Famers. His motor changes the tempo of a game almost instantly. Blink and you might miss him.

"Chris [Paul], he picks his spots and he's more of a scorer," Randy Foye said. "Eric, he's more explosive, he's fast, he's strong, he's really fast up and down the floor."

In the Clippers' series with the Spurs, Bledsoe provided more than a shift from calculated to chaotic. He was a game-changer. In the series opener, he scored a team-high 23 points, matching his best game as a professional.

After disappearing for much of Games 2 and 3, he was the catalyst for a second-half rally in Game 4.

"He's very aggressive," Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro said. "In Game 1 when we opened the court up a little bit he could get to the basket. He has great instincts defensively and we have to score some points off our defense in terms of causing havoc, trying to not let San Antonio feel so comfortable in what they're running.

"He changes the complexion for us. We can play him and Chris [Paul] together and obviously when Chris needs a blow Eric handles the point guard duties."

Bledsoe's backcourt versatility was part of what the Clippers envisioned when they traded a 2012 first-round pick to Oklahoma City for him on draft day two years ago. He did it in his only year at the University of Kentucky, starting at shooting guard alongside All-American John Wall. But his rookie season was different. Because of injuries to veterans Baron Davis and Foye, Bledsoe played 32 or more minutes in 10 of first 13 NBA games, mostly at point guard.

As last season went on, Bledsoe showed an ability to alter games with his defense. He had two majestic blocks in the team's January 2011 victory over Miami and recorded seven steals against Denver for a Clipper rookie record.

Del Negro says that Bledsoe's foot speed, athleticism, and toughness are what make him a potential defensive force. But he came into the 2011-12 season slowed by a knee injury. He missed the first five weeks as he recovered from surgery on a torn right meniscus and a combination of a logjam in the Clipper backcourt and an apparent hesitancy after he came back made playing time for most of the regular season hard to come by. He didn't play meaningful minutes until the team's 14-point win over Atlanta in mid March.

While Del Negro said he saw flashes from Bledsoe, he likely never expected the 22-year-old guard's breakthrough in the playoffs.

He played to near exhaustion, flying around, making plays on both ends of the floor.

"Eric has done a fantastic job for us, last series, and obviously tonight," Del Negro said Bledsoe's 23-point performance in Game 1 at San Antonio. "He did a great job pushing tempo, getting to the rim, making plays, tip ins, offensive rebounds. Eric's so athletic.

"This is his first playoff experience, but he's a tough kid. He's a competitor and he's only going to get better."

And Bledsoe got better throughout the postseason. In his playoff debut, he played the final quarter of the Clippers' historic comeback over the Grizzlies, knocking down two baseline jumpers, slowing Conley, and making a diving save along the sideline which led to a pair of late free throws for Blake Griffin.

As the Clippers advanced, Del Negro looked to Bledsoe more often to provide a spark off the bench. He almost always delivered.

He had follow dunks on offensive rebounds, tossed alley oops to Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, and gained confidence in his mid-range jumper, a shot he works on tirelessly. And in the team's final game, a 102-99 loss to the Spurs, it was Bledsoe who helped the Clippers charge back and take a six-point lead in the fourth quarter.

Bledsoe finished 8-for-10 from the floor with 17 points, four rebounds, three steals, an assist and a block. It was the kind of overflowing box score that he compiled with regularity in his 11 playoff games. The scary part? As Del Negro indicated, the best is likely yet to come.

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