BLEDSOE BIGGEST IN SMALL-BALL LINEUP
NEW ORLEANS – The Clippers’ small-ball lineup that won them Friday night’s game against the Hornets was perhaps fittingly led by one of its smallest players.
“I thought Eric Bledsoe gave us a big burst,” Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro said.
Bledsoe has been mired in what he called a two-month “slump,” scoring more than 10 points just once since Feb. 11. But took over the game in New Orleans during a six-minute stint in the fourth quarter when Del Negro played him alongside Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes and Blake Griffin.
He scored six points on three consecutive possessions where the Clippers peeled five points off their 10-point deficit. He nailed a flat-footed corner 3-pointer, converted a foul shot, and flipped in a wondrous up and under layup off a well-timed bounce pass from Paul.
Crawford, Barnes and Paul scored the next 16 points for the Clippers, but after Paul missed a driving layup in a three-point game, Bledsoe charged in from the same spot he made 3-pointer a few minutes earlier and skied above everyone for a two-handed put-back dunk. It was the kind of play that is hardly customary for most point guards with Bledsoe being one of a few exceptions.
The dunk put the Clippers ahead, 90-85, with 52 seconds to go and left a New Orleans Arena crowd grumbling as their team was again unable to retain a double-digit lead at home.
Hornets guard Brian Roberts, who started in place of an injured Greivis Vasquez (ankle), said, “In that fourth quarter, we didn’t panic, but we did get too jittery.”
Bledsoe, a jitterbug of sorts on the court, was a major reason why. His defensive pressure, particularly against his one-time Clippers teammate Eric Gordon, was paramount. Gordon scored eight points in the quarter, including a 3-pointer to give New Orleans an eight-point lead with 5:13 left, but also had a layup attempt gobbled up by Bledsoe and was forced out of his comfort zone down the stretch when the Hornets needed their most dynamic scorer most.
“We were in a tight game like this and I knew we were lacking energy,” Bledsoe said. “So, I just tried to come in and give everyone energy.”
That consistent energy had been lacking for the better part of two months. He was slowed by a nagging calf injury that cost him six games in that span and although he was upbeat and excited once finally healthy, it was obvious he had yet to find his groove.
That changed Friday.
“I told [Clippers guard] Maalik [Wayns], I’m going to go in and help out,” Bledsoe said. “I’ve been playing a lot of games and not helping my team out and I told him when I was about to get in the game, ‘I’m going to come in and play with that energy that I used to play with.’”
Bledsoe, who finished with nine points (all in the fourth), two rebounds and two assists, hopped off the bench with about minute left in the third quarter to replace Paul. But after a couple of possessions without a stoppage in play Del Negro called him back. He was inserted into the game to start the fourth and Paul joined him 3:10 later.
Bledsoe said it gave him a confidence boost to have Del Negro stick with him in a tight game.
“When I was going through that little slump, and still am, my teammates were still there to pick me up,” the 23-year-old Bledsoe added. “And I credit them and the coaching staff and everybody for helping out with that, coming through and getting shots up, and helping a young player like me.
“It means a lot. It makes me feel like I’m just as important to the team as anybody else.”
Down the stretch he was arguably the most important.