Eric Bledsoe rises to the challenge

PLAYA VISTA, Calif. -- Los Angeles Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe had a coming-out party during last year's playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies. If the beginning of this year's series against the Grizzlies is any indication, it could be the beginning of his farewell party. Well, in Los Angeles anyway.

Bledsoe averaged 3.3 points, 1.7 assists and 1.6 rebounds during the regular season last season but those averages spiked to 7.9 points, 2.1 assists and 2.4 rebounds during the playoffs. This season, Bledsoe averaged 8.5 points, 3.1 assists and 3.0 rebounds during the regular season but had 15 points, four assists and six rebounds in Game 1.

The 23-year-old point guard is progressively improving and Chris Paul knows it's only a matter of time before he will be forced to play against him instead of alongside of him.

"Bled is one of the best guards in our league," Paul said after practice Sunday. "I've said it all season long. I'm enjoying playing with him right now because there's no way he can be here next year because we probably won't have enough money to pay him. He should be a starting point guard in this league next year."

Bledsoe is actually under contract for next season at $2.6 million, but Paul's words may be the clearest indication yet that he fully intends to sign the five-year, $108 million contract extension the Clippers plan to offer him in the offseason. He knows as long as he is the Clippers' point guard; there simply is no room for Bledsoe.

Chauncey Billups, who had 14 points in Game 1, also said last week that he fully intends to play next season and would like to return to the Clippers. Willie Green, who started 60 games this season at shooting guard, could also return next season as the Clippers hold a team option at just $1.4 million.

So with his trade value at an all-time high and the Clippers having a potentially crowded backcourt next season, the team could end up trading Bledsoe to upgrade at another position. Bledsoe was rumored to be included in a package with DeAndre Jordan for Kevin Garnett during the All-Star break, but that never materialized.

The Clippers, however, don't need to worry about Bledsoe's future right now as they figure out how to utilize him while they still have him. One option that the Clippers toyed with Saturday is playing Bledsoe along with Paul and Billups, which helped the Clippers close out the game.

"It gives you almost like a three-headed monster," Paul said. "It almost took me back to my college days [at Wake Forest] when I was with Justin Gray and Taron Downey. Bled's that blur. He probably runs faster than me and Chauncey put together. And me and Chauncey are a little more crafty and things like that. ... I think it gave us a little more versatility. They didn't know who to guard."

Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro has leaned on Bledsoe late in games during the Clippers' current eight-game winning streak and says he thinks his young point guard is once again rising to the challenge when it matters most as he did last season at this time.

"I was just thinking Eric had a great stride to his step, especially in that second half," Del Negro said. "He just had energy. It felt like it was contagious out there. I wanted to try to keep Bled's speed on [Mike] Conley as much as possible."

Bledsoe wasn't exactly sure why Del Negro went with the "three-headed monster" lineup in the fourth quarter but expects to see more of it as the series progresses.

"I guess coach had a great feeling about that lineup and wanted to stick with that," Bledsoe said. "And I think we did a great job of helping him have that confidence in us."