• The Bucks' supporting cast once again thrived in a win over the Lakers Friday night, as Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton combined for 70 points and proved how valuable they can be alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo.
By Michael Shapiro
March 02, 2019

With all due respect to Pau Gasol, the biggest story of the NBA day came just shy of 6 p.m. ET, when news of Eric Bledsoe’s four-year extension dropped via a mini-Woj Bomb. The price came out to $70 million, dedicating $17.5 million per year through 2023 to the former Clippers and Suns guard.

For all the talk of superstar pairings and partnerships throughout the league, Milwaukee’s commitment to Bledsoe signaled a different path. LeBron James and the Lakers offered the farm for Anthony Davis. The Knicks dealt their best draft pick since Patrick Ewing to create cap space for two max stars. James Harden has Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook has Paul George. As for Giannis Antetokounmpo, a second All-NBA player may never come. But can Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton provide enough help?

Milwaukee’s supporting cast held its weight on Friday night. Seven Bucks finished in double figures in their 131-120 victory over the Lakers, led by the $70 million man himself. Bledsoe poured in a season-high 31 points despite going just 2-of-11 from three, icing the contest with 37 seconds to play. Malcolm Brogdon – a restricted free agent in July – scored 21 points with a trio of threes. Middleton put up 18 while Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic both finished with 11 apiece. On a night where Antetokounmpo scored just 16 points in 33 minutes, the Bucks still left Staples Center with an NBA-best 48 wins.

We shouldn’t throw Milwaukee a parade for defeating the reeling Lakers. Los Angeles escaped against New Orleans on Wednesday as Anthony Davis chilled on the bench in the fourth quarter. The Lakers previously lost four of their last five before the victory over New Orleans, and now sit two games under .500 following Friday’s defeat. They are three back of San Antonio for the 8 seed, and look more lottery bound by the night. Kyrie Irving ain’t walking through that door. Nor is Tristan Thompson for that matter.

Yet Friday’s victory was another notch in Milwaukee’s belt as it races to the East’s top seed. The Bucks have now defeated Los Angeles, Boston, Denver, Golden State, Houston and Toronto on the road. They’re the league’s No. 4 offense and No. 1 defense. Perhaps last year’s first-round defeat against the Celtics will serve as a stepping-stone to the Finals. Golden State fell to the Clippers in the first round in 2014, and then won the West with 67 wins in 2015. Milwaukee is on a similar course.

Giannis’ MVP evolution has played an integral role in the Bucks’ ascent atop the East, but the development of Milwaukee’s core is significant as well, headed by some of the best basketball of Bledsoe’s career. The Kentucky product is a first-team All-Defense candidate. He sports a career-best plus-11 net rating in 2018-19, and the Bucks are scoring 114.2 points with Bledsoe on the floor. His chemistry with Antetokounmpo has been terrific, with the duo outscoring opposing teams by 10.3 points per 100 possessions. The pair connected on Bledsoe’s dagger on Friday, with Antetokounmpo finding the open man after drawing a double team near the free-throw line. Bledsoe struggled mightily in last year’s defeat against Boston. If he can maintain his regular-season form this postseason, Milwaukee will be a tough out for any of the East contenders, and Golden State as well.

The Bucks took a key step to securing their future with Giannis on Friday in the move to extend Bledsoe. Middleton will be the next domino, Brogdon as well. Milwaukee’s supporting cast has thus far been a worthy crew surrounding Antetokounmpo. More tests will come in the postseason, and further commitments will need to come in July. For now, though, Bledsoe, Middleton and Co. are living up to every expectation, primed for a potential run to the Finals.

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