The Phoenix Suns beat the Oklahoma City Thunder last night in an overtime win at home, that was also televised nationally, and featured their new "Phoenix Rising" grey-ash and amber colored uniforms.
If you were looking for a good story, the Suns certainly gave you plenty to chew on. The Suns beat the Thunder who currently hold the 8th spot in the Western Conference and are now only 1.5 games behind. They got their first quality win after a major roster reshuffle against one of the best teams in the league (even without Kevin Durant) who was on a seven game winning streak. And they symbolically rose from the ashes, just as the new uniform suggested, to re-enter the playoff discussion out West.
But I think the most important story line of all is the emergence of the player that Eric Bledsoe has become.
While Russell Westbrook led all scorers with a game high 39 points, he had to take 38 shots to do so (he only shot 12/38 from the field). And yes, Westbrook also still managed to dish out 11 assists even with all of that shooting, and he grabbed an impressive 14 rebounds. Russell did all he could to put the team on his back and earn a hard-fought win.
But it wasn't enough.
Why? Because of Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe defended Westbrook better than I have seen any other guard defend him this season. He was constantly in his face, making him take tough shots, and also making Russell exert a great deal of energy guarding him on defense as well.
Eric was the main reason that Westbrook shot only 12/38 from the field, a paltry 32%, and even the majority of the 12 shots he made were all pretty well contested (He was only 5/22 when Bledsoe was guarding him).
Bledsoe also managed to score 28 points of his own, but he did so while being much more selective with his shots, shooting an impressive 11/16 from the field, a very efficient 69%, and also dishing 9 assists (his teammates had ample opportunities to give him that 10th) while grabbing 13 rebounds and blocking 4 shots.
Markieff Morris also had an excellent game and outscored Bledsoe by one, with 29 points to go with his 11 rebounds. But otherwise, Eric led the Suns in every single category...a truly dominant performance that is even more impressive when you realize he is sharing point guard duties with Brandon Knight, unlike Westbrook who does everything on his own.
Tonight, Eric Bledsoe was the best player on the court, and though he isn't the type to brag or boast (always stressing a team first mentality in his interviews), he deserves the respect and praise from the fans for how he has stepped into the leadership role not by telling other players what to do, but in leading by example.
Make no mistake about it, Eric Bledsoe is the Suns' franchise player, and he is giving the fans reason to be very excited about the future of this team.
Here is what he and P.J. Tucker had to say after the win last night:
Bledsoe talked about the importance of winning this game, and also emphasizing the team-first mentality that he plays with. He also spoke about assuming more of a leadership role since Goran Dragic was traded, and how he and the other players met together for a players only meeting, in order to talk about things they need to do together to be more successful.
P.J. talked about the importance of continuing to fight through these close games, and how it was time that the Suns finally got a bounce in their favor (when Westbrook missed a potentially game-tying lay-up in overtime). Tucker also talked about the growth of the team in winning a tough, close game at the end, and the sense of urgency they all feel being in their position.
Only two players talked to the media tonight after a late ending to an already late game, which of course made for a packed media scrum trying to get as much as they could from those two players after a nationally televised game.
Other players were able to sneak out before we could get to them, but I think P.J. and Eric gave us a good idea about where the mindset of this team is currently, and the direction they see themselves heading in.
The Suns' will have one day of rest with no practice scheduled today, but they'll be right back at it against the San Antonio Spurs at home on Saturday.
Until then, enjoy the win Suns' fans. This was a big one.