PAUL SAYS BLEDSOE IS A "POINT GUARD'S NIGHTMARE"

Eric Bledsoe

LOS ANGELES – Fifteen seconds into his return it was obvious what the Clippers had been missing with Eric Bledsoe sidelined by a left calf strain.

Bledsoe darted into the lane and made a layup twisting around two defenders before crashing to the floor. It was the first of his three baskets Saturday when he finished with seven points, a steal, an assist and two rebounds in the Clippers’ 101-95 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.

“It felt great,” Bledsoe said of being back on the court. “I just wanted to focus on coming in and playing my game.”

Bledsoe missed six games with the calf injury that’s nagged him for more than a month. He sustained it against the Spurs on Feb. 21, attempted to play through it, but was clearly hampered. In four games this month before being shut down, he totaled 16 points. He was limited defensively, had more turnovers than assists and was a shell of what he was earlier in the season.

On Saturday in 10:21, Bledsoe was finally on track again.

“I thought he looked a lot better,” Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro said. “What happens with injuries is you have to get past the thinking point of them. I thought tonight was the first time I saw him out there kind of just playing and he hasn’t really been doing that since the San Antonio game when he got hurt.”

Where Bledsoe looked the best was defensively. He hounded C.J. Watson, Brooklyn’s backup point guard, forced the Nets to wear a few extra seconds on the shot clock with his ball pressure and returned to be a menace in passing lanes.

“He was all over the ball tonight and that’s a point guard’s nightmare,” said Chris Paul, who Bledsoe started in place of for 12 games prior to the All-Star break. “It’s a point guard’s nightmare to have a guy picking you up the entire court, turning you, changing you in the backcourt, never knowing if he’s going to steal and then putting pressure on them defensively. So, it’s great to have him back.”

Del Negro liked what Bledsoe was doing defensively, but also thought an acrobatic 3-point play the young guard had in the fourth quarter was key in helping the Clippers win their 10th consecutive game against an Eastern Conference opponent.

“I like the way he was pressuring the ball,” Del Negro said. “He had a big play on the baseline where we kind of didn’t have very good spacing on a fast break, but he cross-screened and went baseline and got the 3-point play. That kind of got us a little bit of energy and got the crowd into the game a little bit. I thought we kind of fed off that.”

Until Bledsoe’s layup, tumbling out of bounds as he flipped the ball in, the Clippers had not led for more than a quarter and a half. As he bounced up and strode to the foul line, Bledsoe flexed both arms, holding his hands above his shoulders almost as if to say, “Any questions?” Including Bledsoe’s ensuing free throw the Clippers outscored the Nets, 20-12, over the next 7:54.

Del Negro said afterwards that Bledsoe will continue to be monitored as the team heads on a four-game road trip, which may include a restriction on the number of minutes he is allowed to play. Still, even in short bursts Saturday night showed a flicker of how much an effective and healthy Bledsoe can change the complexion of a game.

It sounded like Bledsoe recognized that, too, especially after spending the better part of a month watching practices while sitting on an exercise ball and the last five games wearing a suit.

“I think the best time to learn things is when your hurt,” he said. “Just sitting back and observing to see how you can be effective in certain parts of the games is important. So I think that I really learned a lot.

“I had a good amount of time off. To just come back and help Chris [Paul] by taking away some of those minutes, and be effective in those minutes, is great.”