Balanced Mikal Bridges proves key for Suns in Game 1 of Nuggets series
PHOENIX — Chris Paul stuck the daggers. Devin Booker drew doubles.
Deandre Ayton flexed against likely NBA MVP Nikola Jokic just enough, and backup guard Cam Payne shifted the Suns into high gear when their defense finally started firing in the second half of a 122-105 home win.
It was a full team effort for the Phoenix Suns to begin their second-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets on Monday. And let’s not forget the leading scorer.
That was defensive ace Mikal Bridges, who dropped 23 points on 12 shots.
“Just teammates finding me, and my coaches just telling me to mix up a little bit,” Bridges said. “(They said) you have everything you want (available), you know, just shooting and driving.
“They put that on (me), to mix it up a little bit. Just being aggressive.”
Maybe it was a surprise Bridges led Phoenix in scoring, but it was a promising relevation early on in the Western Conference Semifinals series. That’s because Bridges is likely to have similar opportunities against this Denver squad moving forward.
The Nuggets want power forward Aaron Gordon guarding shooting guard Devin Booker.
They would like to stick shooting guard Austin Rivers or point guard Facundo Campazzo on Paul, leaving the other backcourt starter to potentially play Bridges.
That, or scorer Michael Porter Jr. with his sketchy defensive track record, must contain the Suns’ defense-first wing.
Presented with those options, the Suns should like their chances for Bridges to contribute a bit on the offensive end.
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Bridges missed two threes to begin the game Monday as Denver’s defense lost track of the corner treys. Though Bridges’ early looks were open, he said the Suns coaching staff pushed him to strike a better balance.
The third-year forward eventually found his rhythm, finishing 4-of-8 from deep, while adding five assists and two steals.
“Mikal, man, Mikal is something else,” Ayton said, swerving sharply from answering a question about the lively crowd. “He’s a.k.a. ‘The Warden.’ That dude sacrifices a lot, he plays hard. That’s just a great teammate to have, man.”
Just what Bridges thrived most at in Game 1 is a matter of opinion, too.
Suns head coach Monty Williams loved Bridges’ backside defense that turned into transition buckets, one coming out of a timeout.
Bridges wasn’t the only Sun who recovered from a first half where Phoenix struggled in communicating whether to switch or not on defense.
The switch-flip on defense bore out in the straight shooting percentages.
Denver hit 53% in the first half to 40% in the second.
The Suns got stops and ran more in the second half, leaping from 46% shooting to 64% in the respective halves as they buried the Nuggets with a mid-third-quarter burst.
“Those live-ball turnovers, we can live in that environment with the speed and athleticism and the guards we have,” Williams said.
Bridges scored in transition, too, finishing off one Suns forced turnover with a layup as part of a 16-0 run in the third quarter.
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While Bridges found an array of shot opportunities and put together his usual share of defensive highlights that impressed his head coach, Ayton benefitted from Bridges’ play-making that was created by the forward attacking closeouts.
The big man saw something promising there as well.
“Mikal is a jump-shot shooter, but man, he made some plays today,” said Ayton, who scored 20 points to go with 10 rebounds.
At the end of the day, though, Williams couldn’t not talk about Bridges’ off-the-bounce game.
“I thought he picked his spots well when the shots presented themselves,” Williams said. “He did a really good job of having balance tonight, you know, taking the threes when they presented themselves but he also attacked the paint.
“For a guy we don’t call many plays for, that’s a pretty efficient night.”