State of the Clippers: Bledsoe’s learning curve

The education of Eric Bledsoe continues.
 
The Clippers point guard has been a fill-in for injured All-Star starter Chris Paul, and although he’s still growing into the role, Bledsoe is learning one important lesson: be assertive.
 
It’s not always easy. Bledsoe is 23 years old and playing in only his third NBA season. On a team full of veterans, it’s often difficult for the soft-spoken Bledsoe to direct the offense and make sure everyone is in his correct spot on the floor.
 
“Yelling at older guys, our veterans, who are way more experienced than me, it’s definitely a hard thing to do,” Bledsoe said. Then, with a smile, he added, “They tell me all the time, ‘Speak up.’ Coming from them it’s very hard because I think they’ve got kids my age.”
 
Not quite, but making sure established players like Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes and Ronny Turiaf are where they should be requires a quarterback’s voice and firmness.
 
Since he moved from a backup role to the starting lineup after Paul suffered a bruised right kneecap earlier this month, Bledsoe has worked to get better. He’s had some good performances – no turnovers in 34 minutes Sunday against Portland, 10 assists and six steals Wednesday at Minnesota – but his growth hinges on his ability to demand his teammates’ attention.
 
“When we were playing in Portland (last Saturday night), there were a couple of times where we didn’t hear play sets, and that’s something he’s not used to doing,” forward Blake Griffin said. “I talked to him about it at halftime, and ever since he’s been doing a great job. He’s been vocal, bringing huddles together.”
 
It’s uncertain when Paul or Chauncey Billups (left foot tendinitis) will get back into the lineup, so Bledsoe understands the importance of his job. The more he plays, the more he’s able to develop his presence on the court.
 
“Guys respect him enough and have played with him long enough that he needs to demand more from them in terms of telling them where to go and how to do it,” coach Vinny Del Negro said. “That’s what the point guard has to do. At times I think you’ll see him taking more command of the game, which is a good learning curve for him. It’s nothing he can’t handle.”
 
Eventually, Bledsoe knows his time will come. He could start for any number of NBA teams right now, but the lessons he’s learning from Paul and Billups will help when he eventually moves on.
 
If the Clippers sign Paul to a long-term deal – and there’s no reason to think that won’t happen – Bledsoe will opt to go elsewhere when he becomes a free agent. But he’s not ready to discuss that yet.
 
“I’ll worry about that when the time comes,” he said. “For right now, I’m focusing on winning, learning how to win, learning from two of the best point guards probably in the game. I’m definitely in a great situation right now.”
 
Who’s Hot: Griffin has stepped up his scoring and ball-handing during Paul’s absence, and it’s showing. He’s scored 20 or more points in six of the Clippers’ past eight games, and in a one-week span that started Jan. 21 and covered five games, he averaged 23.2 points, 9 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 2.2 steals. The last time someone averaged 23 or more points, nine or more rebounds, six or more assists and two or more steals in a five-game span over one week: 2005, by LeBron James.
 
Who’s Not: Forward Matt Barnes plays such a critical role on the Clippers’ second unit that it seemed they were destined to lose Wednesday night when he was ejected for a flagrant 2 foul at Minnesota. When he scores 10 or more points in a game, the team’s record is 23-6. He was scoreless at the time he was tossed. He needs to control his temper or it will cost the Clippers.
 
Three Thoughts
 
1. Teams talk about chemistry and building a family, but the Clippers are living proof it happens. When the Timberwolves’ Greg Stiemsma knocked Grant Hill to the floor in the second quarter Wednesday, Caron Butler and Turiaf rushed to challenge Stiemsma and defend their teammate. The Clippers then went on a 36-15 run to take an 11-point lead. The players have developed a one-for-all mentality that will serve them well over the next three months.

2. A colleague and respected journalist of ours has been tweeting that Kobe Bryant’s resurgence as an assist man for the Lakers suddenly makes him the best point guard in the league. Our reaction: You must be kidding. Bryant isn’t even the best point guard in LA. That distinction belongs to Paul, who is hobbled by injury but who is nonpareil when it comes to NBA point guards. Paul ranks among the league leaders in assists and steals, and he’s been doing it a lot longer than Bryant. End of discussion.

3. Barnes’ early exit Wednesday forced Del Negro to juggle his units in the fourth quarter, and center DeAndre Jordan came up big. Jordan, whose poor foul shooting makes him a liability in close games, pulled down three rebounds and blocked a shot while playing almost six minutes of the final period. He had 16 points and 12 rebounds in the game, his highest total in either category this month. If he can improve his free-throw shooting – and that’s a big if – he’ll get more chances to play down the stretch.
 
Quotes of the Week
 
“You know, that’s my idol right there. Growing up and playing the game … that’s someone that I idolized growing up, the way he conducted himself on and off the court as a professional and the way he approached the game. Once I saw my big brother go down, it was a natural reaction.” 
 
Caron Butler, on why he reacted so angrily after seeing teammate Grant Hill knocked down by Minnesota’ Greg Stiemsma
 
“It’s not ideal. You never want to be away from home that long, but I wouldn’t say you dread it. You have to do it every year; a lot of teams have to do it. It’s one of those things that you have to mentally prepare for. For me, the hardest part is packing.”
 
Blake Griffin, on the Clippers’ annual Grammy trip, which includes eight games in 13 days
 
“Watched the game and texted and had to listen to my wife saying I have to calm down and take deep breaths. She was my therapist during the game.”
 
Matt Barnes, on what he did in the locker room after his ejection. He later apologized to his teammates
 
What’s next?
 
One game down, seven more to go. The Clippers continue their Grammy trip Friday night in Toronto, then face Boston and Washington in back-to-back games starting on Sunday. The Clippers are 14-8 on the road, and although there are any number of trap games on this trip, it’s still reasonable to assume they’ll come home with a winning record.
 
Tower of Power?
 
Since going 16-0 in December, the Clippers are 9-7 in January. That might not qualify as overpowering, but they have a better overall record than every team in the league except San Antonio and Oklahoma City. That’s worthy of skyscraper status.