LOS ANGELES -- Eric Bledsoe made that long walk down the Staples Center corridor more than a hundred times during the first three seasons of his career.
As he made that walk Monday morning and made the same left turn to the silver door halfway down the hallway -- as he had done every time before -- he was met with a surprise.
"I found out the door was locked,” Bledsoe said. “It was weird."
It was locked because Bledsoe, who is now the Phoenix Suns point guard, was trying to enter the Los Angeles Clippers' locker room before the Suns’ shootaround at Staples Center. It’s a habit that was so hard to break that Bledsoe nearly did it again before Monday night’s game, his first game back against the Clippers since being traded to Phoenix as part of a three-team, four-player trade last summer.
"I was here for three years,” Bledsoe said. "I only did one year of college in Lexington [at the University of Kentucky], and I spent most of my life in Birmingham [Ala.], so this feels like home."
Bledsoe’s homecoming, much like Phoenix’s start to the season, went better than most expected Monday, as his Suns beat the Clippers 107-88. Bledsoe finished the game with just seven points on 3-of-10 shooting with four assists and three rebounds, but that’s all the Suns needed from their speedy, 24-year-old point guard on a night when everything seemed to go their way.
Going up against his old teammates and friends after receiving a loud ovation during pregame introductions and watching a video tribute in his honor between the first and second quarters, Bledsoe clearly wasn’t himself. He looked hesitant and slightly nervous going up against guys he went up against every day in practice for the past two years.
While Phoenix’s 19-11 start to the season might be surprising, Bledsoe’s ability to transition from backup point guard to starting point guard has surprised no one. Certainly not Chris Paul, who went up against Bledsoe in practice and had a courtside seat to watch him play every time he came in to relieve Paul his first two seasons in Los Angeles.
"He’s doing it all right now," Paul said. "One of the things about Bled is how hard he works. This summer was a big summer for him when the trade happened, and we used to talk about it all the time and I said it all the time: He’s not a backup in this league. He’s a starter, and he’s proving it so far."
There was a slight chance the Clippers might have been able to keep Bledsoe and start him alongside Paul after Doc Rivers became the Clippers’ coach. Rivers said his initial plan was to keep Bledsoe and see if he could play him alongside Paul, but after looking at his contract and the likelihood that he would leave in free agency for nothing, he knew the Clippers had to secure the best deal for him, which ended up being a package with Caron Butler for J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley.
"I really liked him, and I thought he fit a lot of the stuff that I do, especially defensively," Rivers said. "But after sitting down and looking at our books, you got to try to look at your value. If you don’t think you’re going to be able to keep a guy, when is his value the highest? Then you have to look at what helps your team in the long run. We clearly lost in the playoffs because we lacked shooting, not because we lacked athleticism, so all of those things had to go into that very difficult choice."
Bledsoe was also ready to be a starter. It’s a realization he had actually come to a year earlier after averaging 11.5 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists in just 23 minutes off the bench against the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the playoffs. This season, he is averaging 18.4 points, 5.9 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game for the Suns.
"I knew after my second year when were in the playoffs and I was feeling confident in the summer," Bledsoe said. "I felt that then."
It was a feeling that was passed onto Rivers early on in his tenure as not only the Clippers' coach but the senior vice president of basketball operations.
"He was ready to be a starter," Rivers said. "There’s no doubt about it. We really only had one talk and I talked to his representatives, and they made that very clear. If it wasn’t starting, it was playing a lot of minutes. That could have happened here. I just didn’t know if it was going to happen here, and I didn’t know if he would be happy or not. I think he would have handled it, but it would have been no fun."
There’s no question Bledsoe and the Suns are having fun after the trade, but Rivers thinks the Clippers' time will also come when Redick returns from torn ligaments in his right hand and Dudley regains his form after battling a bruised right knee this season.
"I judge a trade by how it helps the team," Rivers said. "I think it will be a great trade for us, but I think it will be a great trade for them as well."