A deep dive into how Eric Bledsoe's style of play switched up going from a role player off the bench to one of the faces of a franchise.

One of the toughest aspects of being an NBA player is the adjustment from being a role player off the bench to taking a leading role in a starting lineup.

This is a process Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe has gone through and as expected his game has undergone some changes.  It's isn't possible for a player to perform the same way in 20 minutes a night as he would in 32.  The majority of the alterations in Eric's game were to be able to withstand that 12-minute increase and larger nightly burden.

"I'm a little bit more patient than I was coming off the bench," said Bledsoe after Wednesday's shootaround.  "I had to do everything in one stretch and now I can pick my spots."

The first and most obvious modification for Bledsoe was his shot selection.  According to basketball-reference.com the former Kentucky star's average shot distance this season is 12.7 compared to 10.7 in 2012-2013.

This chart breaks down the difference in the location of Bledsoe's shots:

Snip20140402_10_medium

The biggest difference showcased is the 9% drop in shots in the restricted area and 16% increase in above the break threes.

In addition to changing where he's attempting shots, Bledsoe's game has become more risk averse.

Coming into this season what made him such a unique player was the potential for the spectacular on a regular basis, but that has gone away as he's grown into, for lack a better term, a more "traditional" (hate saying that) piece.  This is exemplified by the drop in dunks, steals, blocks and offensive rebounds.

"Some of that is we don't want him to crash the boards," stated Phoenix head coach Jeff Hornacek.  "He's got to be one of our defensive guys back there.  We say every once in a while if you see a wide open one go for it, but you got to be a little more selective.  Same thing defensively, him scrambling around looking for steals, sometimes the gamble pays off, sometimes it doesn't.  I think early in the season he was just gambling for all kinds of steals and got us into trouble.  Recently since he's come back, he's been very smart about when to go for something and when not to, and he's made some big plays that way."

This is exemplified through the numbers shown here:

Snip20140402_11_medium

The fall off in these categories doesn't mean the energy he exerted is going to waste.  Bledsoe has started to concentrate in other areas of greater importance.

"That's something that naturally happened," said Bledsoe referring to how his style of play has evolved.  "Those dropped, but other things picked up.  I pretty much just go out there and play every game like it's my last."

And the two categories where Bledsoe has put more of his focus are drawing fouls and hitting the defensive boards.

Snip20140402_12_medium

Bledsoe's free throw rate is the highest on Suns out of any player that gets regular rotation minutes helping them rank 11th in the league for free throw attempts per field goal attempts according to basketball-reference.com.

On the other hand, Phoenix is a below average defensive rebounding team (22nd in NBA) despite Rajon Rondo, Michael Carter-Williams and Russell Westbrook being the only point guard with a higher defensive rebounding % than Bledsoe.

Bledsoe's contributions in these areas are of much greater value to the Suns than him using up energy chasing steals, offensive rebounds and blocks.

Finally, one of the biggest adjustments for a player going through a transition like Bledsoe is how to pace yourself through games and from an even bigger perspective a season.

Using the SportVU data we can glean from a small sample size Bledsoe grasps he couldn't go as hard as he did with his increased responsibilities this season (even though that contradicts quote from him above I'm guessing he doesn't want to say he isn't going 100% full blast all the time).

In the 35 games Bledsoe has played in 13-14, according to the SportVU data his average speed is 4.0 miles per hour and he travels 3.24 miles per 48 minutes.

In the 20 games available from last year's SportVU data, (Clippers didn't have the technology and they only played 20 games in arenas with it) his average speed was 4.2 miles per hour and he traveled 3.33 miles per 48 minutes.

While that might not seem significant, if the pattern shows to hold through a larger sample size it exemplifies Bledsoe understands how to fine-tune his game to be more successful in the long term with a heavier workload.

Bledsoe's willingness to put aside the highlight reel plays to be a more solid contributor may not be as much fun to watch for fans, but is essential to the success of the Suns team.

Steph Curry's overtime heroics place the Suns back above the playoff line.

On Sunday night the Suns were embarrassed by the Los Angeles Lakers.  Even after that loss the Suns sat in 7th place in the Western Conference standings.  Monday night was an off night for the Suns but Memphis won and dropped the Suns from 7th to 9th.  Last night was another off night for our guys but a Dallas loss put them back up into 8th.

So if you're following all of that - the Suns went from 7th to 9th to 8th without playing once.  Playing in the Western Conference is simultaneously very fun and the worst.

Tuesday April 1st Key Western Conference Results:

Golden State Warriors 122 Dallas Mavericks 120 (Recap) -  This was a really, really big one for the Suns.  In potentially one of the better games of the NBA season, Golden State and Dallas traded haymakers for the first three quarters.  The Warriors led by 9 after a quarter, the Mavs outscored the Warriors by 18 in the 2nd, and the Warriors returned the favor by outscoring Dallas by 13 in the 3rd and math tells us that gives the Dubs a 4 point lead going into the 4th.  In that tight 4th frame, Dallas had a 5 point lead with just 3:24 remaining but on the back of a couple Klay Thompson threes down the stretch and a few blown game winner opportunities we headed to overtime.  In OT, Dallas jumped out to a 117-113 lead but Golden State closed the gap and set up Steph Curry for this game winner:

The loss caps Dallas' 8 game homestand which saw them go just 4-4.  They now have 4 road games in a row (@Clippers, @Lakers, @Kings, @Jazz) before facing the Spurs, Suns at home and visiting the Grizz to close the season.

Portland Trail Blazers 124 Los Angeles Lakers 112 (Recap) -  A playoff team that shows up to play the Lakers in the last couple weeks of the season and takes care of business - who knew.  Former Dallas Mavericks point guard Steve Nash briefly returned to the court last night for the Lakers and actually had the Lakers ahead for a portion of the 2nd quarter.  Then in what has become par for the course for the decaying body of the Santa Clara alum he left the game with injury on two separate occasions.  For the Blazers LaMarcus Aldridge scored 31 points on 20 shots and grabbed 15 rebounds as he led Portland to their 4th straight win.  After slogging through much of March and looking like a potential playoff casualty the Blazers have brought themselves within just 1.5 games of injury-plauged Houston for the 4th spot in the West.

Current Western Conference Standings:

TEAM W L PCT GB L10 STREAK
1.San Antonio
58 16 .784 - 10-0 WON 18
2. Oklahoma City
54 19 .740 3.5
8-2 WON 2
3. LA Clippers
53 22 .707 5.5 8-2 WON 3
4. Houston 49 24 .671 8.5 5-5 LOST 2
5. Portland
49 27 .645 10 6-4 WON 4
6. Golden State
46 28 .622 12 6-4 WON 1
7. Memphis 
44 30 .595 14 6-4 WON 1
8. SUNS
44 30 .595 14
8-2 LOST 1
-  Dallas
44 31 .587 14.5 6-4 LOST 1

Tuesday April 1st Western Conference Games of Significance:

Clippers @ Suns - Both Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford are listed as doubtful for tonight which would be an extremely large break for Phoenix.  However, if the Suns play with the listless effort that got them smashed by the Lakers F Squad on Sunday then Chris Paul and whomever else the Clippers play will be plenty.  I rarely if ever have a positive feeling about a specific game but I do on this one.  If the Suns come out and fight they really should win this game.

Grizzlies @ Timberwolves -  This game certainly isn't a gimme for a Grizzlies team that has struggled with the Jazz and Nuggets recently.  My expectation is that Memphis will trail by like 8 in the 4th quarter and come back to win by 2.  It's becoming predictable.

Warriors @ Spurs -  One night after being ecstatic that the Warriors topped Dallas we'll return to our regularly scheduled Warrior-bashing.  That said, even if San Antonio extends their win streak to 19 tonight the Full Squad's Final 6 games are v. Utah, v. Denver, @Lakers, @Portland, v. Minnesota, @Denver.  Logic would suggest they'll skate into the playoffs.


Time: 7 p.m. MST TV: FSA A review of the Sunday night loss to the Los Angeles Lakers saw the Suns look almost perturbed in running back to match up against a fast-paced team, and even in the...

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Taking a look at the tie break rules to make the playoffs, given that the Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks seems determined to finish with the same record.

There have been a lot of suggestions for improving the NBA playoffs, many of which involve having more Western teams in the field of 16 than just the 8 they are allotted each season.

To wit, the Dallas Mavericks are 44-31 so far this season. That's good enough for 3rd in the East, but can't even crack the top 8 in the West.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are 36-37, which is good enough for 7th in the East but only 10th in the West.

Play-in tourney

One suggestion for improvement has been to have a "play in" tournament for the West's last two seeds.

Thanks to the schedule and the season results so far, those folks are getting their wish. The Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks all have 44 wins, prompting a shuffle of the 7th-8th-9th positions on a daily basis. All three teams are already in the "play in" tournament.

Making matters even tougher, the Suns, Mavericks and Grizzlies all play each other on the final three nights of the season. The Suns play the Mavericks in Dallas, then the Grizzlies at home before finishing on the road at the Sacramento Kings. The Grizzlies and Mavericks finish the season facing each other on the final night.

The possibility definitely exists for a tiebreaker to declare the final playoff spot or two.

Two-way tiebreaker

Da Rules, per nba,com

Two Teams Tied

(1) Better winning percentage in games against each other

(2) Better winning percentage against teams in own division (only if tied teams are in same division).

(3) Better winning percentage against teams in own conference.

(4) Better winning percentage against teams eligible for playoffs in own conference (including teams that finished the regular season tied for a playoff position).

(5) Better winning percentage against teams eligible for playoffs in opposite conference (including teams that finished the regular season tied for a playoff position).

(6) Better net result of total points scored less total points allowed against all opponents ("point differential").

The Suns currently beat out Dallas, but lose to Memphis.

The Suns are 1-1 against Dallas but have a slightly better conference schedule, while they are 0-3 against Memphis.

Three-way tiebreaker

What if all three teams finish with the same record? Who gets the final two playoff spots?

Da Rules, per NBA.com

More Than Two Teams Tied

(1) Better winning percentage in all games among the tied teams.

(2) Better winning percentage against teams in own division (only if all tied teams are in the same division).

(3) Better winning percentage against teams in own conference.

(4) Better winning percentage against teams eligible for playoffs in own conference (including teams that finished the regular season tied for a playoff position).

(5) Better net result of total points scored less total points allowed against all opponents ("point differential").

At the moment, the Phoenix Suns lose any tiebreaker that involves Memphis - either a two-way tie, or a three-way tie - because the Suns are 0-3 against Memphis this season.

Doesn't matter till game 82

We will all pull our hair out over the next two weeks, but the high likelihood is that the season won't be decided until the last game or two.

When the three teams play each other, the tie-break scenarios will likely change once again (though the Suns will almost certainly never win a tiebreak over Memphis).

The Phoenix Suns are 5-0 this season coming off a 10+-point loss, and will need to stretch that to 6-0 in order to stay in playoff position with just 8 games left in the season.

Look, every single day until the end of the season is gonna be a nail biter. Stock up at Total Wine. Hit the Costco for TV-side snacks in bulk. Hunker down.

After beating the Knicks last Friday night, the Suns had a hold on the 7th position in the West on the strength of a 6-game winning streak. Even after losing to the Lakers on Sunday, the Suns still held onto 7th.

Since then, they have not played a game but their playoff position has changed twice. They dropped to 9th on Monday night, then rose back up to 8th on Tuesday. Tonight, the Suns get a chance to resume their control of their own destiny. The playoffs have started, as far as the Suns are concerned. Their next seven games are either on the road, or against Western playoff teams, or both. Only the season-ender - at home against Sacramento - could be considered a "should win" but that only matters if the Suns win at least 3 or 4 of these 7 upcoming games.

The Opponent - The Clippers

The Clippers have managed to string together a great season despite having myriad injuries to their wing players. J.J. Redick has barely played this season, and Jamal Crawford has been in and out of the lineup for weeks. Jared Dudley has had tweaks, and has not made enough shots to justify keeping in the starting lineup.

But the Clippers solution has been to add firepower off the waiver wire - Danny Granger - and start a two-PG lineup with Chris Paul and Darren Collison pushing the pace all game long.

The Suns and the Clippers have played quite the season series. The Suns won the first six quarters they've played by 30 points, a total score of 162-132. Unfortunately, the Clippers have won the last 6 quarters by 26, a total score of 172-146. The Clippers have a 2-1 series lead.

Eric Bledsoe did not play in the two Suns losses, but he also only scored 7 points in the lone Suns win. After seeing the sheer size of the egg Bledsoe laid against the Lakers in LA, and the total of 7 points he's scored against the Clippers this season, you might wonder if Bledsoe will has a soft spot for LaLa Land.

The Clippers are a damn good team. Their offense, behind the mastermind of Alvin Gentry and Chris Paul, is #1 in the league in terms of points per possession. Their defense, behind the anchor of Jordan, isn't far behind at 6th in the league. On a normal night, they're going to whup you.

But the Suns did blow the Clips away in LaLa Land on December 30, the last time the Suns were at full strength against them.

Be sure to check out the podcast today - a special edition with ClipperSteve and our own Kris Habbas talking about these teams and tonight's game.

Also coming later is a Q and A with Steve.

The Suns

We've talked a lot about this for the past few days, so I won't dwell on it. But I still can't understand what Suns team showed up on Sunday in LA to lose like that. What a waste a good opportunity.

Anyway, we move on. The Suns are back in 8th, where they were a week ago. Still 14 games over .500, and still facing season-ending "play in" games against both Dallas and Memphis.

What you can expect tonight, based on performances so far this season, is that the Suns will play a LOT better than they did against Los Angeles.

The Suns are 5-0 this season after losing the previous game by 10+ points, with three of those bounce-back wins coming against Western Conference playoff teams.

The Stats

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The Lineups

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*Jared Dudley started at small-ball PF the other night while Griffin sat out. Griffin is questionable tonight.

Key Match-Up

It's got to Chris Paul against his former protege Eric Bledsoe. But on a larger scale, you'll notice that the Clippers are starting both of their point guards on a nightly basis, Paul and Darren Collison, just like the Suns start their PGs, The Slash Brothers.

It will be a battle of the two-headed mosters. This is the point where we thank Vinny Del Negro for refusing to play Paul and Bledsoe together last year, prompting the Clippers to trade Bledsoe for peanuts despite having another year under contract for cheap. But their problem is our solution.

The Prediction

The Suns are smarting from that butt-whooping in LA on Sunday, and from two straight losses to the Clippers as well. Look for the Suns to win the back court battle.

The Suns need this win a lot more than the Clippers do. I see the Suns going small a lot tonight, trying to draw Jordan away from the basket with Channing Frye and Markieff Morris at center for most of the minutes. If Frye can break out of his shooting slump and make a few threes to kick off the game, the Suns will coast.

Suns win 115-105.

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