MILWAUKEE -- Eric Bledsoe was fuming.
He knew better than to be baited by Joel Embiid -- one of the league's most notorious trash-talkers -- but the game was physical. It happened so quickly: jostling for the rebound, the shove, Embiid tossing the ball at Bledsoe, who fired it back into Embiid's gut, the whistle. Just like that, Bledsoe was ejected.
The Philadelphia crowd taunted him as he walked down the corridor and back to the visitors locker room in Wells Fargo Center, flanked by two security guards. Bledsoe understood that the Milwaukee Bucks pride themselves on being a team that is calm and collected. But his teammates call him a pit bull for a reason.
Days later, in a secluded corner of Carnevor, a dimly lit steakhouse in downtown Milwaukee, Bledsoe and Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer rehashed the play. Over cuts of medium-rare filet mignon, Budenholzer reminded his starting point guard why he needed to keep his cool. In the first round of the 2018 playoffs, Bledsoe became embroiled in an extended back-and-forth with Celtics guard Terry Rozier, and he later admitted the war of words got in his head. For the Bucks to reach their goal of winning a title, Budenholzer explained, they couldn't afford for Bledsoe to lose his temper.
"He wasn't pissed," Bledsoe said. "He was just saying in the future, especially in the playoffs, you can't make it personal."
Between bites, Budenholzer recalled the fate of the Golden State Warriors after Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals, which the Cleveland Cavaliers won en route to making history by overcoming a 3-1 series deficit. They discussed how Amar'e Stoudemire's suspension hurt the Phoenix Suns in the 2007 Western Conference semifinals. There were times, Budenholzer said, that teams will just try to beat you by playing mental games.
"He said sometimes teams may not be more talented than us, but they might try to get in our heads," Bledsoe said.
Which brings us to Friday -- two days before the Celtics-Bucks postseason rematch.
"Look," Bledsoe said, spinning a basketball between his hands and leaning up against the padded wall of the Bucks' practice facility. He knows the questions about Rozier are coming. He knows all eyes are on him. He admits he is nervous and fully expects to be taunted and ridiculed when the Bucks play in TD Garden. And he is sick of talking about it.
This series, for Bledsoe, is a mental test. He must maintain his composure and handle the nerves that can creep up, particularly early in games. He wants to prove to himself that he is a more focused player than he showed last season.
"I'm just trying to move on," he said.
IN THE DAYS after the Bucks fell to the Celtics in Game 7 last season, Bledsoe spent a lot of time watching film. He didn't watch film of Rozier splashing a clutch 3-pointer over him in Game 1, or film of Rozier scoring 23 points in Game 2, or the interview in which Rozier accidentally referred to Bledsoe as "Drew." Those things, particularly Rozier's 3, are seared into his memory.
"I can't downplay it," Bledsoe said. "He made a hell of a move. I could've still contested it, but I just stopped. I didn't think he was going to make it. That comes back to respect. I didn't respect him at the time, but he made a big shot. I have to tip my hat."
Instead, Bledsoe dusted off film from 2013, his first season with the Suns. It was the first time he had been a starter. Back then, he said, he was having a lot of fun.
"I went back and looked myself in the mirror and reminded myself that a lot of people said I couldn't be a starter," Bledsoe said. "I watched film of what took me over the hump -- I wasn't worried about what so many people thought of me. I was just focused on myself back then."
That Celtics series revealed weaknesses he knew he needed to address, such as his bouts with overconfidence and his occasional habit of being complacent.
Bledsoe spent the summer of 2018 in Arizona, where he got back into the gym immediately. He would go in the early morning and sometimes again late at night, convinced his conditioning played a role in why the Bucks lost. He flew to Las Vegas and Milwaukee to work out with Charles Lee, a Bucks assistant coach. He took yoga classes to help with his nerves, balance and flexibility. He worked on breathing techniques. He would later employ that deep breathing as a way to calm the frayed nerves he has battled for more than a decade.
A new season began. With a new coach, a new offensive system and Giannis Antetokounmpo playing at an MVP level, Milwaukee got off to a blazing-hot start. The Bucks played the Celtics for the first time Nov. 1 and lost. Bledsoe missed a key free throw down the stretch of that game. Instead of going home when the Bucks' plane landed in Milwaukee that night, Bledsoe and Lee went to the practice facility to work on the shots Bledsoe missed.
Reminders of the Boston series popped up sporadically. During a Dec. 12 game in Indiana, Pacers fans took a page out of the Boston crowd's playbook, chanting, "Who is Bledsoe?" when he shot free throws.
The Bucks beat the Celtics in their next two matchups, with Bledsoe posting 16 points in the first meeting but just five in their second. At the time, Bledsoe wasn't concerned about the five-point game. He chalked it up to shaking off some rust because it was the first game after the All-Star break.
In March, Bledsoe signed a four-year, $70 million extension to remain in Milwaukee. The Bucks marched along to clinch the No. 1 seed in the NBA with a league-best 60 victories.
They swept the Detroit Pistons in the first round of the playoffs and had six days off before facing the Celtics. They held three practices and two days of individual workouts. The time off felt like an eternity. Antetokounmpo joked that it was long enough to take a mini-vacation to the Bahamas.
The days crept along. Arrangements were made for the Bucks to get a private screening of the new Avengers movie. Bledsoe attended with his family.
"I just want to play already," Bledsoe said two days before the second round of the playoffs began. "I'm ready to get the first one out of the way."
GAME 1 WAS not the redemption Bledsoe was seeking.
The Celtics came out strong -- Bledsoe was expecting that. Kyrie Irving, who sat out injured during their meeting in the 2018 playoffs, scored a game-high 26 points. Bledsoe was expecting that, too. Bledsoe was nervous, but that's nothing out of the ordinary. He has been battling nerves since he was in junior high school.
The nerves usually kick in when Bledsoe arrives at the arena, and he often tries to manage them by playing with his kids before games. They don't care how he plays; to them, he's just their dad. Sometimes, Bledsoe brings his son, Ethan, out to the court to warm up with him.
The butterflies reappear when he is in the Bucks' layup line 10 minutes before tipoff. During the national anthem, Bledsoe meditates. He is usually the first person to break from the line of his teammates -- usually several seconds before the final notes of "The Star-Spangled Banner" are sung.
He takes a big, centering breath before the public-address announcer booms, "A 6-foot guard from Kentucky -- Eric Bledsoe."
"I am nervous all the way through the national anthem and the first play," Bledsoe said. "Once I get up and down the court a few times, it fades."
But Sunday, there still seemed to be butterflies on his first 3-point attempt. They started to melt away when he made free throws late in the first quarter, but he never quite found a rhythm. He finished with 6 points, 2 rebounds and 4 assists in 25 minutes. He was more effective on defense, as Rozier scored just 4 points in 23 plays with Bledsoe as the primary defender, according to ESPN Stats & Information data.
The Celtics rolled the Bucks by 22 points. Afterward, Bledsoe dressed quickly and left the arena without talking to reporters.
On Monday, Bledsoe watched the missed shots and defensive miscues with his teammates in the Bucks' film room. Budenholzer sat at the front of the room next to the screen. He yelled. He told his players they didn't compete. Budenholzer drove home the importance of creating space for Antetokounmpo.
And strangely, it helped. By the end of practice, Bledsoe appeared lighter.
"Film showed me that it's not my lack of talent," Bledsoe said. "It's my effort."
And that's an easier fix.
"At some point, we knew we was going to have a tough match," Bledsoe said. "Unfortunately, it came Game 1. All we can do now is bounce back."