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Mikal Bridges’ bubble scrimmage breakout continues for Suns in win

Mikal Bridges #25 of the Phoenix Suns attempts a layup against Emmanuel Mudiay #1 of the New York Knicks during the first quarter of the game at Madison Square Garden on December 17, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

For young players in the NBA who grow into great players, sometimes it’s incremental improvement. That’s what we’re seeing with Deandre Ayton at the moment.

Sometimes it’s more immediate and apparent. That’s what we’ve seen with Devin Booker.

And sometimes it just clicks out of nowhere, as if the player got through a mental block and it’s full speed ahead from there.

That’s what Phoenix Suns fans hope is happening with Mikal Bridges in Orlando, as his aggressive scoring mentality off the dribble has transformed him into a completely new-looking player full of confidence.

Bridges had 26 points in 27 minutes of a 117-106 win over the Toronto Raptors, continuing his great run of form at Walt Disney World.

The wing’s eyes are lighting up now when teams defend him like he’s not a threat, with Marc Gasol switching onto him here. He’s shown off a quick first step and his slept-on touch around the basket that’s always been fantastic in transition.

Bridges got on the board a few times early in the game, and that fully opened him up to shoot without any hesitation. He developed a hitch with Phoenix, but that’ll go away if he’s feeling himself enough.

That was the case on Tuesday, as he was 4-of-5 from three-point range, and the two-way impact was immense.

In 78 minutes played over the three scrimmages, Bridges has scored 56 total points, which is 25.8 points per 36 minutes. This season, he is averaging 11.5 points per 36 minutes.

It looks like he’s having a breakthrough. Bridges also had a similar breakout on a more minor scale the last two months of the season, getting back to the true glue guy he was at Villanova.

Despite all that, head coach Monty Williams is not going to get too far ahead of himself on his 23-year-old wing.

“I be careful of all those declarations,” he said. “He’s still a young player. He’s playing with confidence and he does a lot of stuff that we value but he knows that he has a long ways to go.

“My hope is that he continues to have the same focus and same commitment to improve and he’s turning into a guy that we rely on to make plays on both ends of the floor.”

Ricky Rubio said the progress Bridges has made is evident and credited him taking advantage of the “second offseason” of sorts created by the season’s suspension.

Bridges had one of those games that the box score did in fact accurately represent his presence in the game, and the Suns played off that to the brand of basketball that they smoked the Utah Jazz with on Thursday.

The Suns led comfortably enough throughout most of the game despite Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton being in single digits scoring. They can do that when they play together and other players like Bridges step up, as most of the teams in Orlando are capable of doing.

Cam Johnson had 19 points starting in place of the injured Dario Saric (ankle), while Ricky Rubio added 22 points, four rebounds, four assists and four steals.

The Suns shot 18-of-47 (38.3%) from three-point range and had 22 steals.

After a poor performance on in Sunday’s loss, rookie point guard Ty Jerome did not play in the first half. The recently signed Cameron Payne got the backup point guard nod over him.

Those two would later play together in a four-guard lineup for the entirety of the fourth quarter, as the Suns only had 11 healthy players available and Williams wanted to keep the minutes for the rotation players down. Elie Okobo was a part of that lineup in his first action since arriving in Orlando.

Ayton and Booker had underwhelming performances for the second scrimmage in a row, but they appear to be focused more on the team elements of these scrimmages rather than locking in on their own individual games and it’s paying off for the group.

They have a clear surge of momentum to ride into the eight-game seeding portion that begins on Friday, one they’ll need in that environment.

“I’d love to say we’re at a certain level right now, but as I just told the guys, we’re going to play against desperate teams in the next eight games,” Williams said. “So we’re gonna find out exactly where we are.”

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