MILWAUKEE -- IT WAS 2 o'clock in the morning, and Charles Lee could not give his boss a ride home from Milwaukee's General Mitchell Airport. Breaking from his usual practice with head coach Mike Budenholzer after road trips, the Bucks assistant coach tossed his luggage in the back of his silver GMC Acadia and drove 15 minutes to the Bucks' practice facility.
Milwaukee guard Eric Bledsoe was already there, with the events of the Nov. 1 loss in Boston replaying in his head. Hours earlier, Bledsoe had missed a key free throw in the final seconds that could have tied the game. The lost opportunity was cause for a night of discontent, and that it came against Boston -- the team that had knocked Milwaukee out of the 2018 playoffs -- only made things worse.
After Lee arrived at the practice facility in the early hours of that morning, he put Bledsoe through a 45-minute workout that included 50 paint finishes, 50 free throws and 50 3-pointers. The gym remained silent as they worked, save for the sounds of Lee counting each made shot and of the ball bouncing off the hardwood.
"Bled was pretty upset the whole time," Lee says. "He needed to let go of some of that frustration. He went into that game with a huge chip on his shoulder from that playoff series."
Bledsoe doesn't usually hold grudges. He doesn't resent the Thunder for trading away his rights on draft night. He doesn't begrudge the Clippers for using him in a limited role behind All-Star Chris Paul. And he is no longer vexed by the Suns' decision to shut him down for the final 14 games of the 2016-17 season as they tried to improve their draft lottery odds.
It's easy to see that Bledsoe, once introverted and a self-proclaimed brooder, now appears happy -- this is, he says, the happiest he has been in his nine-year career. He has found a system that bolsters his strengths and a city where he feels at home, and he is positioning himself for a big payday this summer.
But there's something about losing to the Celtics. More than 250 days after the Bucks' Game 7 playoff loss in Boston, Bledsoe still shakes his head.
"It was my fault we lost the Boston series," Bledsoe says, shoving his hands into the pockets of his sweatpants before twisting the left side of his mouth into a half-smile, half-snarl that makes the 29-year-old look like a toddler with a secret.
"It's a good thing to feel like that sometimes," he continues. "You want to be hungry and prove everybody wrong."
PERHAPS THE BOSTON playoff performance stings because it was so many years in the making.
After going one-and-done at Kentucky, Bledsoe spent his first three NBA seasons as a backup on a Clippers team with championship aspirations. His athleticism and on-ball defense made him popular with League Pass diehards, but it was clear throughout his L.A. tenure that he would never fully blossom in Paul's shadow.
A 2013 trade to the Suns opened the door for Bledsoe to not only be a starter but also compete to be a franchise player. In Phoenix, he delivered on his early-career promise, averaging more than 20 points per game in back-to-back seasons. But after a surprising 48-win season in his first year with the Suns, the franchise slipped to 39 wins the following year. The Suns then entered an extended rough patch that included a cycling of coaches and players and three straight seasons of fewer than 25 wins.
The losing took its toll. At times, Bledsoe says, it was hard to stay engaged without something to play for -- a championship, a playoff berth, something.
"The losing just kept building up," Bledsoe says. "We had a great group of guys, but we were young and I feel like my bad habits were draining [my effectiveness]."
His final season in Phoenix got off to an ominous beginning when the Suns fired coach Earl Watson after an 0-3 start. And then, on Oct. 22, 2017 -- one day after the Suns had lost by 42 points to the Clippers -- Bledsoe tweeted: "I Dont wanna be here." The tweet immediately went viral. Although Bledsoe still says he was tweeting about being at a hair salon with his wife, then-Suns general manager Ryan McDonough banished him from the team facility. Bledsoe now acknowledges the tweet was "bad timing."
Less than three weeks after the controversial tweet, the Suns traded Bledsoe to the Bucks, who viewed him as a key X factor to complement Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. Although Milwaukee fired coach Jason Kidd midway through the 2017-18 season, Bledsoe enjoyed a smooth acclimation to the Bucks, averaging 17.8 points and 5.1 assists per game as a third option.
Then came the playoffs.
"It was just one bad series," Bledsoe says now. "I had a great season last year, but it was just one bad series. And everybody noticed. I thought it was going to be easy because we were playing so well at the end of the season. It was about respecting your opponents, too, because I wasn't prepared going in."
The Celtics series represented Bledsoe's first postseason appearance since 2013, and his first ever as a starter. Although the Bucks were the East's No. 7 seed, they were a trendy upset pick because the No. 2-seeded Celtics were without All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving due to injury. As the first-round series unfolded, Milwaukee's hopes swelled when Boston's defense had no answer for Antetokounmpo, who averaged 25.7 points and 9.6 rebounds against the Celtics.
The series hinged, though, on Bledsoe's sudden rivalry with Boston's stand-in starting point guard, Terry Rozier.
An extended back-and-forth began when Rozier mistakenly referred to Eric Bledsoe as "Drew" Bledsoe, the name of a former New England Patriots quarterback. Eric Bledsoe responded by saying he didn't "know who the f---" Rozier was. On the court, Rozier was unexpectedly successful, scoring 23 points in each of Games 1 and 2 and bringing more attention to their matchup.
Meanwhile, Bledsoe shot just 44 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3 during the seven-game series, and Rozier helped send the Bucks home with 26 points and five 3-pointers in a Game 7 victory.
In Boston, "Eric Bledsoe" turned into a punchline.
"You choose to back down from it, or you attack it and get better," Bledsoe says. "I think I attacked it and got better. The people who watch you on the court often don't know you as an actual person -- a human being. Just because you are living the dream making millions of dollars doesn't mean you don't go through problems. I don't let stuff like that get to me and affect me."
When the Bucks hired Budenholzer in May, the coaching staff split up which players each coach would be in touch with over the summer. Lee picked Bledsoe. Over the course of the summer, Lee traveled to Arizona to work with Bledsoe, and Bledsoe flew to Las Vegas and Milwaukee to meet with Lee.
They worked diligently to snuff out the bad habits -- or, as Lee calls them, Bledsoe's "too-cool-for-school tendencies" -- that had built up in Phoenix. Milwaukee hoped Bledsoe would learn to avoid careless travels, work harder to fight through screens and cut down on his tendency to quit on plays. The Bucks didn't want to fundamentally change him; they simply wanted to bring his best traits to the forefront.
"He's a little guy," Antetokounmpo says, grinning. "But he's got a big heart. It certainly takes a lot of guts for him to say that [the Boston series was his fault]. But it's always a team effort. All we wanted for Eric was to build winning habits, and I think he's done a great job doing that."
Milwaukee also made purposeful changes to Bledsoe's shot selection. In Phoenix, he often settled for long 2-pointers, with 22 percent of his shots in 2015-16 coming from that zone. This season, a career-low 4 percent of his shots are long 2s, and a career-high 39 percent are 3-pointers. On top of that, Bledsoe is benefitting from Budenholzer's five-out system, which creates space for his slashing drives to the basket. Bledsoe is finishing 77 percent of his shots from within 3 feet, a career-best number that most centers would envy.
"He's an underrated piece," Middleton says. "We changed as a team last year when Bled came. When he first got into the league, his nickname was 'Baby Bron.' People forgot how athletic, strong and springy he is. We see that every day."
THE TIMING FOR Bledsoe's strong play couldn't be better. He's set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and Milwaukee is motivated to keep him. Bucks general manager Jon Horst traded away John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova in December, positioning the franchise to retain Bledsoe and Middleton, who is also set to hit free agency. Acquiring and retaining supporting talent, after all, is central to the Bucks' plans for convincing Antetokounmpo to remain in Milwaukee.
Bledsoe has settled in to his new home, living in the same downtown building as Bucks president Peter Feigin, overlooking the city's famed breweries. Bledsoe's wife, Morgan, and the couple's 7-year-old daughter, Eriauna, and 3-year-old son, Ethan (the father/child alliteration is purposeful), joined him in Wisconsin last summer.
In many ways, the rust-belt city reminds Bledsoe of his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. Milwaukee lacks the warm weather and his mother's famous fried chicken and mac and cheese, but it possesses a similar civility among strangers that gives him a sense of belonging. A homebody, Bledsoe's idea of a night out involves taking Morgan to The Cheesecake Factory, where he orders a Caesar salad.
"It's slow," Bledsoe says of Milwaukee, with his slight southern twang. "There ain't much to do. It feels just like home. I like it because I don't want life to pass me by. In big cities, things go by too fast."
Teammates and staffers have noticed a lighter Bledsoe, who has worked this season to mix in some fun. Before every game, he shoots with Lee, sprinting back to the locker room after making the final 3 of his warm-up. Bledsoe has mentored rookie Donte DiVincenzo and has cultivated a competition with Middleton to see who can record more dunks over the course of the season. ("He's up by one with two asterisks," Middleton says. "He's had two hard layups where he lays the ball in and then grabs the rim and that counts. I need to get video.")
But Bledsoe knows it's about to get serious. He is facing a major decision in free agency this summer and, more than anything, he is hoping to atone in the playoffs.
Memories of Rozier jumpers and his own missed free throws might have kept Bledsoe in the gym late at night, but they've also given him a purpose.
"It's not just about proving Boston wrong, because we might not get matched up against them in a series," Bledsoe says. "It's to prove to myself that I'm better than that and that I can do so much more."