EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Mikal Bridges’ energy, All-Defense-worthy skillset have yet to miss games for Suns

Dec 1, 2021, 12:41 PM | Updated: 12:52 pm
Mikal Bridges #25 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on ...
Mikal Bridges #25 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on November 04, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — In the tail-end of the 2018-19 season, Phoenix Suns wing Mikal Bridges is going through a whole lot of new experiences in his rookie season.

He’s not only adjusting to the NBA but coming off an elbow injury in the preseason, a Grade 2 sprain in his left arm, the first time he’s ever hurt an elbow like that.

While missing time in the preseason is a ding for first-year players trying to learn a new system and league, they are exhibitions, so sitting out those games is fine.

But Bridges works his way back from it in time for the start of the year before sustaining a similar nick later in the season, this time to his right elbow, and a regular-season injury is a different story for him. Yes, even for a Phoenix team that loses 17 games in a row during one stretch and finishes it 19-63.

Bridges gets his right arm taped up to help with the pain to the point where it was difficult for him to really move his arm, and especially fully execute his shooting motion. If he flicks his wrist all the way, pain shoots into his elbow. He puts a sleeve over it and doesn’t tell his friends or family because he knows what they will say. He doesn’t want to miss a game, even ones that border on meaningless because of how much the Suns are losing.

“Didn’t lose sleep over it and just [didn’t say] nothing about it,” he told Arizona Sports on Tuesday.

The rookie proceeds to experience almost two weeks of not being able to functionally use that arm perfectly and just powers through it, playing all 82 games in his rookie season, the beginning of a career in which Bridges has yet to miss a regular season or playoff game for the Suns.

The above is an example Bridges provided to Arizona Sports when asked about the closest he came to not playing and he’s probably got a few more.

Bridges’ regular season streak hit 248 games in Tuesday’s win against the Golden State Warriors, the second-longest active run going in the NBA.

He only trails Indiana’s Justin Holiday, who technically was inactive for one game when he was traded to a team that played that same day, but Elias Sports Bureau is cool with letting that slide (understandably so).

Where we should begin shining the spotlight for Bridges’ title as one of the NBA’s ironmen is on his defensive responsibilities, how he’s managing it while doing the hardest job on the team year after year.

He will defend one future Hall of Famer on a Saturday and then another the next game on Tuesday, which is what he did this past week against James Harden and Stephen Curry. He also spent time checking Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant, the man with a case as the best scorer ever.

In the spirit of Tony Allen, teammate Devin Booker said the Suns have started yelling out “First Team!” for Bridges on defense, as in First Team All-Defense. Chris Paul said after a Nov. 19 win that if Bridges doesn’t play another single game he should still make All-Defense, a list of 10 spots he finished 11th in voting for the season prior.

And that was before what he helped do to Harden (4-for-15 shooting) and Curry (4-of-21), with that efficiency for Curry being the worst of his career in a game he took over 20 shots in. Bridges’ name is, rightfully so, beginning to float into the Defensive Player of the Year conversations.

Given how Bridges nearly cracked the list last season and has gotten even better as one of the best defenders on the planet, he feels like a shoo-in, but those around him want to be sure.

“The fact that he’s not talked about as an All-Defense candidate nationally is mindboggling,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said on Nov. 18. “He guards the toughest guy every single night, sometimes 94 feet. All-Stars, 1A, 2A guys — Mikal is on them. His value to our team, it’s hard to quantify. Because it allows for other guys, not to take a break, but they don’t have to chase those guys around the floor the way that he does.”

Bridges does that all while being the most active cutter for the Suns in the halfcourt and as an ever-present sprinter in transition. He does not just stand in the corner like some 3-and-D players do, and his overall play is far beyond that type of lazy label.

Williams mentioned a few times in the postseason how he wanted his perimeter players to try to get their hands on rebounds more, tipping them to teammates. It’s something Phoenix is much better at now, and guess who is a constant in that regard?

Bridges travels 2.65 miles per game this season, according to NBA.com’s tracking data, a top 10 number. His 1.31 miles a night on defense are tied for the top spot and he averages 2.5 deflections per game, a great mark that’s only second on the team to Paul (3.2), the owner of some of the best hands you’ve ever seen.

Bridges’ activity level rivals anyone. And again, in an era where the players he guards are getting load management, he’s not.

His last absence for one of his team’s games goes all the way back to his junior year of high school, and even that sort of has an asterisk on it. The game was part of a tournament to determine seeding for a far more important tournament coming up, and if Bridges’ Great Valley High School in Malvern, Penn., lost, it would actually have an easier path in the upcoming bracket.

Bridges was sick at the time and his coach made him stay home. The coach knew Bridges could potentially get the itch to play anyway if he was in the building. At the time, Bridges didn’t even know what his coach was up to.

“Coaches do things without telling you and, hey, he did it right for the program,” he said.

The mentality for Bridges to not miss games really developed at Villanova, where he spent four seasons (redshirting one) before declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft.

“At school, at ‘Nova, you didn’t miss a game for nothing,” Bridges said. “You gotta really not be able to play. That’s where it really, really came from. Just knowing if you’re nicked up, just playing every game.”

Bridges didn’t sit for the Wildcats, either. The one notable occasion was the first round of the 2017 Big East Tournament against St. John’s in his sophomore year.

Bridges described himself as being “a little messed up” with a bug and he only logged a minute before checking himself out, so imagine how sick he really must have been. By the time he was feeling better later in the game, it was basically over, a 108-67 final, so Bridges never checked back in. He proceeded to play his usual allotment the next day in a win over Seton Hall.

“That was crazy,” he said of the early exit. “I left that game early, but other than that, I remember every single game where I’ve been in there every single minute I could.”

Bridges credits his time at Villanova for helping him build up a mindset he doesn’t think he had much of when he first stepped on campus. He went as far as proposing there’s a “what if?” for him if he went to school elsewhere.

“Mental toughness, I think I got all that from ‘Nova,” he said. “[Villanova coach Jay Wright] helps you. You see a lot of guys from ‘Nova that’s here. They’re all NBA-ready just because of how we practice. Everything that we do is locked in, military-type. It gets us ready.”

He was a crucial fixture in Villanova’s program across three years in which it went 103-13 and won two national championships.

Bridges was always going to be a winner in the NBA too. It was just a matter of how long it would take the Suns to benefit from that, and they certainly are now.

To go back to the “3-and-D” moniker, it almost feels insulting to call Bridges a glue guy or a role player. He has already proven he is much more than that with much more of his career still to go.

But, with that said, when you think about those terms, some of the emphasis is on how they are consistent contributors. They remain in the mix and at any moment can be game-changers with what they do.

In a way, that’s all perfect to represent a guy who never leaves the court and is the most low-key dude imaginable about it.

Because, like, come on, wouldn’t we all puff our chest a bit if we never missed work for seven straight years?

“I don’t really think about it,” Bridges said of his streak. “Just playing out there and having the ability to play.”

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