NBA

NBA Finals: Mikal Bridges thriving as unsung hero of Suns’ playoff run and ‘winning’ piece for future success

Chris Paul finally gets his shot at a title. Devin Booker emerges as a playoff superstar. Deandre Ayton proves his critics wrong. There are so many storylines associated with this dazzling Phoenix Suns turnaround, from 10 straight years in the lottery to two wins away from hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy, that it’s nearly impossible to give everyone the credit they deserve.

So when Mikal Bridges, who has been a relatively unsung hero for this Suns team throughout the playoffs, puts up 27 points and seven rebounds in Phoenix’s 118-108 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, it serves as a stark reminder of just how good he has been, how great he can be and how integral he is to the Suns’ future.

It wasn’t just that Bridges notched his highest point total since scoring a career-high 34 six months ago in the 10th game of the regular season — it was the way in which he got those points. A sharpshooter who took nearly as many 3-pointers as 2-pointers during the regular season, Bridges showcased his full arsenal in Thursday’s win. Five of his eight field goals came from inside the arc, demonstrating a wide array of pull-ups and finishes when the Bucks limited his 3-point looks.

“I think tonight he recognized once he started making shots and they ran him off the line, he was getting to his spot,” Suns coach Monty Williams said after Game 2. “Sometimes he would get close to the basket, but he would get to a spot where he can make that seven-, eight-foot jump shot. He’s been doing that all year, it’s just that everybody’s seeing it now.”

Milwaukee adjusted its defensive game plan in Game 2 to provide more help on Booker and Paul, which left Bridges wide open early — he made two of his three 3-pointers in the first four minutes of the game. After that, the Bucks made it their mission to not give him open 3-point looks, and that’s when Bridges went to work.

He knocked down a couple of fadeaways, which led Booker to later accuse Bridges of pilfering that aspect of his offensive attack. Although, as Williams pointed out, Bridges has been deadly on pull-ups all year long despite not taking them often. During the regular season, he was in the 81st percentile with 1.049 points per possession on jumpers inside of 17 feet, according to Synergy Sports Technology. In the playoffs he’s gone 10 for 16 from that range, good for the 97th percentile, and his feathery touch was on display in Game 2:

Bridges also leveraged the attention Booker was receiving by faking this handoff in the second quarter, leading to an in-rhythm, baseline mid-range pull-up. This is impressive — especially in the Finals — for a player who’s not generally tasked with making quick reads and playmaking decisions.

As much credit as Bridges deserves, the Suns need to thank another player for his contributions to Thursday’s win. Veteran wing E’Twaun Moore hasn’t seen the court in the Finals, but he has consistently reminded Bridges that he’s not just a shooter.

“Sometimes I get so focused on wanting to hit that three, if I haven’t touched it in a while and I just want to get one up. I think it’s always, ‘Let me hit this three and get myself going,'” Bridges said after Game 2. “[Moore] was just like, ‘Mix it up, try and get to the rim.’ And I’m like, damn, that’s what I was doing and I just forgot. I was trying to just hit a three. Once I started doing that, it just opens up my game, just playing off my jump shot and getting into the paint.”

One of the most important skills a shooter can possess is the timing and precision to go back-door when overplayed. Bridges has showcased that ability all season, in the 84th percentile during the regular season with 1.494 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy, and he gave us a great example in the third quarter of Game 2. It’s one thing to make the right cut, but it’s quite another to be able to finish at the rim with a double-pump dunk over a 7-footer:

Speaking of athleticism, look at the deceleration and footwork on this play, blowing past Giannis Antetokounmpo and then breaking out an up-and-under to finish around Khris Middleton:

These are exactly the types of plays that make the “3-and-D” designation feel inadequate for the 24-year-old Bridges, who has the tools and work ethic to become much more of an offensive force as his career progresses.

“You get to the gym, Mikal’s there and he’s putting in extra work. He’s there after,” Booker said. “People will still try to label him as a 3-and-D guy, and I’ve told you guys multiple times that’s not even close to his game. If teams want to try to make him be the one to beat them, he’ll do it.”

Bridges’ burgeoning offensive repertoire comes in addition to his smothering defense, which made him the highest vote-getter of any player not to make one of the 2021 NBA All-Defensive teams — an honor that he’ll surely receive sooner rather than later. He’s spent the duration of his first playoff run guarding the best opposing perimeter player, whether it’s LeBron James, Michael Porter Jr., Paul George or, most recently, Middleton, who went 5 for 16 from the field and 1 for 6 from 3-point range in Game 2.

“He takes a lot of pressure off of everybody. And the most impressive part is he’s always guarding the most dynamic scorer on the other team,” Booker said of Bridges. “Middleton is not an easy matchup, and that’s his matchup every night and he has to do a lot on the other end. So, for him to still have his legs, still have his focus to make the plays that he did, it takes a lot of pressure off everybody: me, Chris, Deandre. It makes it a lot easier for everybody.”

Bridges also routinely makes the winning plays that endear yourself to coaches and teammates. Just one example is this sequence from the fourth quarter of Game 2, when the Bucks had just gone on a 7-0 run to cut the Suns’ lead from 13 to six with just over five minutes to play. Paul missed a pull-up jumper, and a defensive rebound would have given Milwaukee a chance to make it a single-possession game. Instead, Bridges raced from the corner to the top of the key and, between four Bucks, poked the ball to Suns forward Jae Crowder. The possession, after another offensive rebound by Ayton, ultimately led to a dagger 3-pointer from Paul to put the game out of reach:

Put together Bridges’ entire package and you have a winning player who puts in the work, defends at an All-NBA level, has 54/43/84 shooting splits and the foundation of a devastating offensive arsenal. While the spotlight is justifiably drenching Booker and Ayton during these playoffs, Bridges could be just as vital of a piece to the Suns’ sustained success over the next several years. Ayton could command a max extension this offseason, and Bridges, the 10th overall pick in 2018 who also becomes extension-eligible after the season, could get somewhere in the $20 million per year range.

From what he’s shown so far in his career, Bridges will be worth every penny.

“[Bridges] is just a winner. He’s a winner,” Paul said. “When we won the Western Conference finals I looked at him and had a flashback of him being at Villanova. I remember him winning a championship there. He’s just a winner. He’s going to do whatever you need him to do, offensively or defensively, and it’s good to see him playing like this.”


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