EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Mikal Bridges’ offensive breakthrough continues in Suns’ win over Cavs

Feb 8, 2021, 10:58 PM | Updated: Feb 9, 2021, 2:20 pm
Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges, left, shoots over the defense of Boston Celtics guard Payton Pr...

Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges, left, shoots over the defense of Boston Celtics guard Payton Pritchard (11) and forward Daniel Theis during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

(AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

When Chris Paul got to Phoenix, it was going to be fascinating to see how the Suns’ young players responded to playing with the Point God.

Straight from the jump in preseason play, the one guy that seemed to be responding and more aggressive than anyone was third-year wing Mikal Bridges.

The trigger on his catch-and-shoot three-pointers was ultra-quick. He had more urgency off the bounce attacking the basket and a certain disregard for anyone else’s presence in the key when he finished.

In Monday’s 119-113 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, we saw that a few times.

Bridges scored 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting, the fifth time he’s registered at least 20 in his 23 games this season. He reached that total only five times in his first two seasons combined.

For Bridges, there has been a mentality change as a slasher beyond making cuts and getting out in transition.

But to start on transition, he’s gone from craft to using force.

“He’s a menace in transition,” Suns guard Devin Booker said after Monday’s game. “You turn your head one time, he’s going to be on the rim.”

Bridges got off to a blazing hot start from the perimeter this season, shooting 47.5% at three-point range in his first 14 games. Regression comes for everyone, and it did hard for Bridges, as he shot 4-of-31 on deep balls in his next seven games, putting him back at a still-respectable 38% number.

Regardless, he’s being looked at now as a shooter after working through some shooting form tweaks his first two seasons. Teams aren’t just OK with him taking those shots anymore. They’re chasing him off the line, something he said hadn’t happened to him since college.

“Kind of taking what the defense gives you,” Bridges said after Sunday’s win over the Celtics. “If they close out strong, then I’ll have the opportunity to drive.”

For some role players, that’s where limitations can be exposed, but Bridges instead is showing his potential.

The 6-foot-6 wing is using his great touch around the basket, particularly on 9-12 footers in the short-midrange game, a bucket that is quickly becoming his signature offensive move.

A guy who knows a thing or two about a good midrange game has been on Bridges to look for that shot.

“I told him, ‘That shot for you is uncontested,'” Booker said Monday. “You guys might see a man there a little bit, but if he takes that bump in that paint area, [with] how long his arms are and the point where he shoots it at — it’s tough to guard and he has the touch to make that shot.

“We’re looking for that at any time for him.”

Entering Monday, Bridges was shooting 49% (19-for-39) from the short midrange area, per Cleaning the Glass. He only attempted 57 of those in his rookie year and 62 last season, so that’s trending upward. Bridges is taking 22% of his total shots from the entire midrange area, including deeper jumpers, so upping that will be how he becomes a 20-point-per game scorer.

The glimpses of him being capable of that are starting to get more and more common.

Even still, the Suns will gladly take him being near 15 points a night like he currently is. And he keeps filling in the gaps elsewhere beyond his strong 3-and-D base of skills, as usual.

Bridges’ 1.5 offensive rebounds a night are second on the team. He had two more on Monday, along with five assists, doing his part as a great 0.5 player in Monty Williams’ system.

If that’s not team-friendly enough for you, Bridges’ tiny turnover percentage of 5.9% is the best on the team. He’s one of only three perimeter players in the NBA averaging at least 12 points per game with a turnover percentage below 6%, per Basketball-Reference.

The 24-year-old becoming a consistent scorer would be such a difference-maker for the Suns. There’s already high-end value Bridges provides in defending the opponent’s primary option most nights and being a knockdown three-point shooter, all while doing glue guy things up and down the floor. But if he can figure out how to get in double digits nine games out of 10, tossing in the occasional 20-30 on a few nights like Monday, Phoenix would have one of the most valuable supplementary wings in the league.

Get ready for that man to be (deservedly) paid this upcoming offseason.

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