EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Mikal Bridges puts his ironman suit on, Suns go up 3-2 on Pelicans
PHOENIX — Playoff basketball will change the way you think about the sport. It unearths what we know, what we can expect and what can change.
On Tuesday at Footprint Center, Mikal Bridges changed the way I think about what’s possible from a “role player” in a single basketball game.
Because in a 112-97 Suns win over the New Orleans Pelicans that put the Suns up 3-2 in the first-round series, Bridges was the best player on the floor by a mile and he made that happen just by doing what he does.
Bridges scored a playoff career-high 31 points to go with five rebounds, two assists, two steals, four blocks and one turnover in 47 minutes.
He continued to make life miserable for the Pelicans’ C.J. McCollum, forcing the terrific shotmaker post a 1-of-9 shooting output when he defended him, per ESPN Stats & Info. Bridges also elevated his defensive play on the series’ star Brandon Ingram to hold him to 1-of-5 shooting and three turnovers when he was on him. Those two combined for five total points when Bridges was on them.
Bridges had to defend Ingram for stretches and miss only 76 seconds of game time because Jae Crowder, the primary defender of Ingram, got in foul trouble during both halves. That is no regular 47 minutes and the guy who hasn’t missed a game yet in his NBA career proving capable of that is remarkable.
“That’s what ‘Kal do,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said. “That’s ironman.”
“I haven’t played a game in a Suns uniform without ‘Kal,” Suns point guard Chris Paul said. “So I don’t know what it’s like to play without him.”
When I asked Bridges about taking on both Pelicans star ball-handlers in the same game, Ayton shook his head and said to himself, “That’s crazy.”
“We put him on everybody,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said of Bridges. “Can’t clone him but you wish you could. He’s just one of those rare basketball players that can play that way on defense but also give you the point production that he gave tonight. … He’s learned how to use his length to his advantage and to play that kind of defense and only have one foul says a lot about his IQ and understanding the way the game is being called.
“It certainly helps us in so many ways. He covers up a lot of mistakes, and that’s hard to do when you’re playing on the wing.”
Offensively, Bridges scored everything within the flow of the offense. This wasn’t some 3-point barrage or high-usage performance. He shot 12-of-17 and it was the 17 shots we’ve come to expect from him. A few midrange pull-ups coming around a screen on or off the ball, exquisite finishing at the rim and open 3s.
Altogether, he took the game over.
Ingram and McCollum were only able to find a rhythm when Bridges wasn’t marking them, and once he returned to their space, their tempo was halted. Scoring-wise, Bridges contributed 24 of his points in the second half when the Suns’ offense had stalled out after an encouraging first two quarters.
Paul responded to his career-worst four-point outing in Game 4 by playing with a necessary scoring aggression in the first half. He had 16 of his 22 points then, easily besting his previous high in the series of seven.
“We’ve been talking about that,” Williams said ot Paul’s early scoring. “When they’re putting pressure on Chris, sometimes he’s just gotta go and just be aggressive to score or if he can get to the paint.”
That, an incredible opening six minutes from Ayton and the Suns relocating their unbeatable team workrate drove them to a 13-point lead at halftime. Williams said on Monday the team that was getting the most 50/50 balls was winning, and Phoenix made sure they were that team in Game 5.
“We got a few big ones,” Paul said of it. “I heard (Pelicans head coach) Willie (Green) yelling at one point telling them to get the 50/50 balls.”
Phoenix’s problem in this series has rarely been on its initial defense at the start of possessions. The only way they’ve underperformed defensively has been with second-chance points, and while those persisted on Tuesday, the Pelicans’ limited firepower meant an average night offensively for the Suns was going to do the job.
That, however, requires 3-point shots to fall, a gigantic problem for Phoenix through four games.
Alas, it was at long last solved in Game 5.
The Suns shot 5-of-15 (33.3%) from 3-point range, which felt like closer to 60%, and ended the night 10-for-27 (37%).
Triples by Bridges, Cam Johnson and Landry Shamet in the last four minutes of the first half helped repel a Pelicans rally that could have cut the deficit down to a few possessions.
In the third quarter, the 12 minutes the Pelicans had previously dominated, the Suns managed to only lose it 32-30.
That was thanks to who else but Bridges, who produced 11 points and both of his assists across that time. His entire effect on the game was Draymond Green-esque, a four-time All-Star and future Hall of Famer that really is a “role player” when you think about it. If Bridges starts putting together nights anywhere close to Tuesday’s in the regular season, he will begin getting those All-Star nods too.
Phoenix’s patented wear-down effect kicked in from there in the fourth quarter. Even though the Suns’ offense lost its flow, New Orleans managed only 19 points. I’m no math major but that’s not going to get a comeback done.
“I thought for the most part we maintained the level of intensity tonight and our gameplan discipline was about as good as we’ve seen in the playoffs for sure,” Williams said of the night as a whole. “I thought our guys were locked in to what we were trying to do.
Paul knocked down two midrange jumpers inside six minutes and drained two more free throws that kept Phoenix’s cushion in a good spot. The 36-year-old point guard looked exhausted after the 21 minutes he played in the first half. With the tape on two of his left fingers and the way Paul didn’t hang on the rim in his usual pregame routine with Payne, it does indeed appear there’s something not right with his left hand, as was suspected after Game 4.
Ayton finished with 19 points, nine rebounds and three assists.
Williams tweaked his rotation, including Bismack Biyombo and Aaron Holiday while axing Torrey Craig, with the latter making Bridges’ responsibilities even heavier. He also played two bigs together to help mitigate the impact New Orleans’ Jonas Valanciunas and Larry Nance Jr. were having in a smart rotation tweak of Willie Green’s the game prior.
Holiday was great in six minutes, a needed offering because Cam Payne has essentially short-circuited into a nonstop downhill driving madman that mostly had negative effects on the game.
With that said, his three minutes in the first half were what really woke up the crowd. With that said, he fouled out in the 12 minutes he managed to take 10 shots during with four makes and was somehow still a +3. I’m as confused as you are.
Ingram (22 points) and McCollum (21) combined for 43 points on 41 shot attempts. Valanciunas added 17 points and 14 rebounds while Jose Alvarado’s 12 points (!) made him the only other Pelican in double figures. Defensive ace Herb Jones looked like a rookie for the first time this series, a tough development for New Orleans after how good he was in Games 1-4.