EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

The Twins: Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson are Phoenix Suns’ heart and soul

Oct 4, 2022, 11:21 AM
Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges, left, celebrates with forward Cameron Johnson (23) during the s...

Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges, left, celebrates with forward Cameron Johnson (23) during the second half of Game 2 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX — If you happen to walk by Phoenix Suns forwards Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson doing any number of things they do together, you’re bound to hear something that will make you laugh. Even if you have no idea what they are talking about.

“I think his arms are too long.”

“His little feet. I’m jealous because shoes look nice on him.”

The first line is from Johnson when asked Thursday by Arizona Sports to name the better shooter between them. Johnson cited Bridges’ ridiculous wingspan as to what can occasionally come back to bite him.

“Yeah,” Bridges explained to Arizona Sports on Friday, “(Johnson) said it helps him because his arms ain’t as long, so there’s a lot of room for error.”

The foot-size analysis is from Bridges when he was asked to name his least favorite thing about Johnson. It’s an absurd answer, a jab that can only come from someone who has a close bond to his teammate.

Johnson’s least favorite thing about Bridges is that the latter is from Philly. That’s to be expected coming from someone with roots in the Pittsburgh area.

That is a tiny inkling into the day-to-day banter and friendship the Suns’ two starting wings share. They call each other “twin” after center Deandre Ayton anointed them as such because of how much time they spend together.

Bridges was the 10th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft out of Villanova, and a year later, Johnson was selected 11th from North Carolina. They both played the same position, both played similar roles and both had more than the average amount of college experience to their names.

The connection between the two started immediately. When 2019 Summer League rolled around, Bridges and Johnson weren’t playing, so they started to get to know each other and then were on the same schedule. That’s been the deal ever since.

“We do everything together,” Johnson said. “When we’re lifting, we’re lifting together. When we’re on the court, we’re on the court together. And we’ve been doing that for coming up on three, four years now.

“And when you’re around a guy long enough, you start having your inside jokes,” Johnson added while laughing. “We got a lot of those and just stupid stuff that makes people think we know what each other is thinking.”

Or, you know, wonder what they are actually thinking.

One of those inside jokes is “the dog one,” as Johnson referred to it. He told me to ask Bridges about it.

“Oh my god!” Bridges said when he realized what I was talking about. “We used to start barking at each other. Big inside joke of videos you see when dogs are behind a gate and are barking at each other, and once the gate like opens up, they stop all the barking. Just so funny, love it.”

I believe this clip below is what they are talking about. At least I think so.

Like I said, who knows with those two.

“That’s probably our best one,” Johnson said of all the inside jokes. “Because you probably look at it and are like, ‘What the heck are these guys doing?'”

The two are the same but different.

Johnson’s favorite thing about Bridges: “He doesn’t take himself too seriously. He finds the joy in situations, he finds the joy in basketball, he finds the joy in simple things, you know?”

Bridges’ favorite thing about Johnson: “How smart he is. He remembers everything. Remembers every name, every little detail that somebody might have said off a sentence three months ago. He’ll just remember exactly what they said.”

They both conceded rather quickly that Johnson is the better shooter and Bridges is the better defender.

“Come on now, that’s his specialty,” Johnson said asked who was better on defense. “He’s built to defend.”

Head coach Monty Williams is around for the shenanigans the two get into and said the whole twin thing caught him off guard because, as he put it, “I’m looking around for like, ‘Who are they talking to?’ Because they don’t look alike.”

But this is where we should really enforce 1) how hard of workers they are and 2) the switch they flip once they get in a competitive environment.

“I think the thing I love about those two guys is they have their personalities, which are carefree and jovial but then they step on the floor you’re like, ‘Holy smokes what happened to that guy?'” Williams said Friday. “That’s what I love about our team. We have guys who have a personality off the floor and then they walk through those glass doors over there and they’re maniacs.

“That’s why our gym is so competitive. In that case, it’s one of the coolest things I’ve seen, is their friendship blossom from the time we all got here in Flagstaff (for Johnson’s first training camp) to now.”

The pair encapsulates what this Suns era of basketball is about under general manager James Jones and Williams. Their personalities have allowed for new players like Damion Lee, Josh Okogie, Jock Landale and Duane Washington Jr. to settle in faster this season. Activities outside of the practice facility like rounds of golf a few weeks before training camp started helped speed up the bonding.

“That’s natural,” Johnson said of getting the guys together. “That’s all natural.”

By the time media day rolled around, Bridges and Johnson already had relationships built with the recent additions. Johnson said Okogie had to bail on one golf session for an appearance or interview, so Johnson jokingly told Okogie he’s not talking to him the rest of camp.

“It’s that kind of relationship now where, these guys, they’re right there,” Johnson said. “They’re part of the team. They were here, they were working out with us and picking everything up quick. It’s like they’ve been here for a while.”

“Just make them comfortable,” Bridges said. “I never have really switched teams, been with different teams and come to a new one. But I know maybe the feeling of just being that new guy and how it is. Just make it easier on guys so they can be comfortable and be themselves and just get to know them.”

You might not compare that to directing a huddle during a crucial stretch of a close game in the fourth quarter, but that’s leadership.

It’s something the Suns will need more out of The Twins now that veteran wing Jae Crowder is moving on.

“Nine-nine has been great here, been a great vet, just learn a lot from him as well on the vet side,” Bridges said of Crowder. “We’re getting older and everything goes up, the responsibility and everything. I think leadership is another thing as well.”

Johnson has his own perspective on the increasing responsibilities as the guy directly replacing Crowder in the starting lineup.

“That’s a vet loss, and Jae was a huge presence for us physically, a huge voice for us and just one of those guys that you knew he was going to fight and that’s one to be missed for sure,” Johnson said. “That kind of urges me to pick up some of that. And I don’t like people saying that you get a huge drop-off in that when I come in, so it’s going to be an emphasis of mine to bring elements of that. Now, Jae is very unique and that’s his calling card right there, but I’m not gonna just lay down and not be a voice that’s heard and not be a presence that’s felt.

“I’m ready for the challenge. I’m excited for it. Mikal is, too. We’ve been playing together for a long time, so this is not a group that — this is not necessarily a new thing, this is not something foreign. This is still in the comfortable range for us in terms of playing with our guys.”

To Johnson’s point, there is an organic element to how he and Bridges have grown closer.

“You just go through so much on the court,” Johnson said. “You’re fighting, you’re fighting through 82, you’re fighting through different seasons, you’re fighting through playoff series, you lose together, you win together and that just strengthens everything. You just develop a lot of trust in those scenarios. And it’s just somebody that you know they’ve basically been through everything you’ve been through from a wins and losses standpoint and everything in-between.

“This continuity that we have I think is really cool. You look at the guy next to you, you know what you’re doing. I feel like this camp compared to my first camp — like first camp, I’m just trying to figure everything out. This time around, number four, you just know guys. You know guys a lot better, you know the system a lot better. So that part, the continuity, is something that I’m really starting to embrace and really love.”

The Suns’ core is supported by a foundation that Bridges and Johnson are each a pillar of. Bridges’ new four-year extension with the franchise starts to kick in this season and Johnson is eligible for one until Oct. 17, one that Phoenix presumably will try to give him.

With that in mind and how defenses last postseason really honed in on Chris Paul and Devin Booker, Williams said Thursday he wants to allow The Twins more responsibility with offensive initiation.

That can go a long way toward both guys’ growth.

“I think it’s just taking on the responsibility,” Bridges said. “Obviously, as a basketball player, you want more responsibility and more things to do. I think as a human and a basketball player, [there’s] excitement in that but it’s tough when you still got C and Book who are unbelievable.

“It’s tough to take the ball out their hands as much because of how really talented they are. It’s stuff that we work for, and I know Cam as well, this year trying to get better and keep adding things. And this (is) another thing. Just happy that Mont’ kind of trusted us and believes in us and letting us play a little bit more as well.”

Johnson believes taking on more responsibility himself will benefit the Suns.

“I think it’s an element of our team that’s a step forward,” Johnson said. “Chris and Devin are obviously guys that you love to have on the ball because they’re so talented but there’s a wear-down effect that comes with that. It’s natural. So I think if we get to a spot where everybody can be involved, it just makes us a lot harder to guard, it makes us more unpredictable and makes us overall better.”

The Twins are ready for it.

Johnson is at 34 career playoff games and Bridges checks in with 35. It’s rare for 26-year-olds like them to have that amount of postseason experience already, something that we’ve seen accelerate their improvements.

“Man, we’ve been through tons of different playoff scenarios,” Johnson said. “We’ve been winning big, we’ve had close ones, we’ve had a Game 7, we’ve had Finals, we’ve had blown leads, we’ve had an ability to come back from things. It’s a wide range of emotions that we’ve experienced but I think it’s made us better.”

Added Bridges: “As a basketball player and being in the playoffs, being resilient I think is the biggest thing.”

And, by default, it has them understand even more what it’s going to take to win a title in their likely third postseason next April.

“The thing is you could have said the same thing about Game 7 of the Mavericks series,” Johnson said of the experience edge. “We had more playoff experience going into that situation I feel like but I think the one thing that teaches you is that just because you played in playoff games don’t mean you’re going to win playoff games.

“I think that’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned is that every game is its own event, every game is its own fight. Doesn’t matter if you were in the Finals the last year, doesn’t matter if you won the last year, doesn’t matter if you won the game before –every play is its own, every possession is its own and I think that’s the biggest thing that experience teaches you.”

While we’ve been talking about the Twins as two teammates attached at the hip, they are their own person. We covered some of that.

To go further, when both were propositioned with what they want to prove to themselves this season, it speaks to who they are and how lucky the Suns are to have them.

Bridges’ intent is endearing.

“Just be a leader, I think is just the biggest thing,” Bridges said, “Honestly, I’m probably friends with everybody in this building. And I joke around, all that stuff, but everybody knows when I get mad and serious. I’m just trying to help everybody so we just have fun and win.”

Johnson’s is too, along with his thoughtfulness on how he got here and stays here.

“OK, so one thing that I’ve prided myself on for my entire life is becoming better at anything that I’ve done,” Johnson said. “So, growing up, I always played up, right? So, if I was in third grade I played at fourth grade, in fourth grade I played at fifth grade, so each year I wanted to be better at that. … High school — each year was major improvement. And then college was the same.”

“That’s kind of what I’ve prided myself on the last 20 years: I’m going to come back better than I was the previous year. So that’s what I want to prove to myself, that there’s no limit to that. I thought I was better my second year than I was my first year, I thought I was better in my third year than my second year. … That kind of mindset is what drives me to work, that drives me to enjoy the processes because I don’t think I’m as good as I’m going to be. I don’t think I’m anywhere near as good as I can be. So that’s what I want to prove to myself is that there is a big step to be taken.

“If you look at my statistics and impact on games from my freshman year of high school to my fifth year of college, every single year is like, ‘Oh, oh! OK! There is another (level)!’ So I don’t think there’s an end to that and I know my trajectory is so much different than probably the average NBA player but that’s just how my path was created. That was the plan for me, that was how my life goes. Everybody’s just different but that’s really what I want to prove to myself and what I want to continue to embrace.”

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The Twins: Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson are Phoenix Suns’ heart and soul