EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Next step in Suns’ evolution offensively starts with Mikal Bridges

Feb 4, 2022, 4:34 PM
Mikal Bridges #25 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball during the second half of the NBA game at Fo...
Mikal Bridges #25 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball during the second half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on January 22, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Pacers 113-103. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns need to get better.

That sentence might trip you up, because with a 41-10 record this season, they have proven they are the best team in the NBA right now.

Will they hold that claim going into the postseason? Through the postseason? It all comes down to those sentences. The championship teams improve over the course of the regular season. Fifty-one games in, that has held true for the Suns. They need to keep it going.

From an individual standpoint, there’s one guy to look at on the Suns, and it’s Mikal Bridges.

Bridges is in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year and with Tony Allen as my witness, he better be First Team All-Defense. He’s taken a few steps forward in that part of his game he was already rather great at.

Offensively, however, we did not quite see the breakthrough season some had anticipated. There still is no primary third option in this offense, as Deandre Ayton’s success in his current role is mostly predicated on getting set up by Chris Paul. And that dude Devin Booker is Devin Booker.

The obvious choice for a third option was always Bridges, but his scoring is actually down from 13.5 points per game last season to 12.9. His shooting percentages are not the reason. His 3-point percentage has dipped a bit from 42.5% to 37.2%, but his field goal percentage is still an excellent 52.0%.

I made a case for a Bridges breakout in the preseason, and despite his skill and efficiency in all three scoring areas of the floor, it has not come to fruition yet.

Yet.

Thursday marked Bridges’ third straight game scoring 20-plus points, the first time in his three-and-a-half NBA seasons he’s ever had a streak like that.

Now, for someone like Bridges who attempts nearly four three-pointers a game, maybe it was some hot shooting.

But it wasn’t that, and this is where a week-long sample size gets encouraging.

Bridges had 30 field goals across those three outings and only five of them were 3s. The variety in those is exciting, because of not only how replicated the shots can be, but of the new ways head coach Monty Williams is using Bridges.

Let’s start with what we’ve known.

Bridges is a fixture in the Suns’ nearly endless variations of sets on the elbow. The one you’ll recognize easily is when he gets a screen and slips to the rim. This is absolutely on the scouting report by now so I don’t know how guys are still not sitting on this, but alas, it’s working.

They’ll run this in the half-court too, where Bridges can use a dribble handoff with Paul as a decoy.

There’s attacking closeouts, where Bridges was acting like he was shot out of a cannon earlier in the season before that aggression started to fade a bit. A finger injury probably did not help matters.

But the aggression is back now.

Speaking of that extra pep in his step, he’s arguably the best cutter in basketball.

He will always get open shots because of the attention Booker and Paul get.

And then there’s transition, where Bridges has more room to take advantage of his ridiculous 83% conversion rate at the rim and utilize his elite speed.

Or, if he seeks it out enough, his great 45% mark on midrange shots. That’s a notable number since Bridges’ percentage of total shots from the midrange is up from 22% a season ago to 35%, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s rare.

Here’s what’s new or more prominent in the last week.

Bridges has been deployed as a screener more, which is another way for him to get that type of transition space where it’s easier for him to get off middies or shots at the basket.

“I think watching (Torrey) Craig last year, playing that role as the 5, how he was rolling and stuff,” Bridges said Sunday of getting in that role more. “It looked really good. In high school, I was the biggest one so I’m used to rolling it sometimes. In my last year of college, I was posting up a little bit more, so I know how to play down there a little bit.”

This can be used when the Suns go small or even when a center is still on the floor.

“He’s gotten so much better … He’s gotten used to setting screens and making plays out of that,” Williams said of Bridges on Sunday. “I think for us, it’s an environment we can live in from time to time when they try to put defenders on him that, at times, aren’t the best defenders because they’re typically on Chris and Book.”

Great point, coach! Speaking of that, to attack it recently, the Suns have had Bridges sealing for deep post position and just shooting over those guards not on Booker or Paul with his great touch. Or just straight-up clearing out for Bridges on the block.

Williams said Thursday that hasn’t been a particular focus going into the game and that it’s probably just a read Paul and Bridges make together, a read Williams wants the guy in his offense to have the freedom to execute.

Lastly, if Bridges is playing with this chutzpah, Williams will run more sets for him. Again, that’s even better when a team like Atlanta is trying to get away with having Trae Young on him. Some of these previous clips were examples of that already and here are a few more.

This is getting ahead of myself, but if Bridges is this type of scoring presence, it opens up his playmaking in these new spaces. He has already proven he is a capable passer, so if teams are ready for that quick slip off a screen, the dump-off pass for him is no sweat.

If Bridges can be more of a 15-18 PPG scorer in the back-half of the season after the All-Star break, it could truly push the Suns over the top to a title. They already have a championship-caliber defense, as they showed last year, but what fell off was on the offensive side of the ball.

They went 17 straight quarters in the Western Conference Finals without reaching 30 points.

Booker and Paul were incredible in Game 1 in the first of two NBA Finals victories. Game 2 saw Phoenix hit 20 3s. In three of the four losses to the Milwaukee Bucks, the Suns scored 103 points or less. Booker had to carry just about the whole offense on his back in Games 4 and 5 and nearly did it with back-to-back 40 burgers before everyone was out of gas by Game 6.

If the Suns don’t add another ball-handler at the trade deadline, that extra juice offensively will need to come from someone else on the roster. Bridges is the best bet.

Penguin Air

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