EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Mikal Bridges’ successful trial by fire is what both he and Suns needed

Jan 25, 2023, 3:47 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 06, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Heat defeated the Suns 104-96. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — We covered Mikal Bridges’ ascent as an offensive player back in late November. He went from a catch-and-shoot threat attacking closeouts to getting his paperwork certified by Devin Booker to join the Phoenix Suns’ “middy committee.”

That spotlights the case for the league’s current Ironman (doubling as one of its truly elite defenders) to potentially become a 20-point-per-game scorer, how he has progressed in his four-plus NBA seasons and what needs to come next.

As we wrapped there, I wrote, “When we start seeing Bridges ooze with confidence, that’s when the train has really left the station and we’re off.”

Phoenix’s season, a 25-24 start that included both its ups and downs, more or less forced Bridges to develop that confidence as a ball-handler.

It has been a trial by fire for Bridges over the last two months, and while it sure as heck wasn’t pretty at times, he has come out of it better in the end to such a degree that we need an unofficial sequel. Sorry, no cool slogan from Booker that rhymes this time.

Four games into an extended skid that would end up at a 5-17 stretch, Booker began missing time due to two different injuries that have now cost him 20 of the last 23 games. Phoenix’s offensive rating this year goes from a superb 120.2 when Booker is on the court to an awful 108.1 without him. That statistically is skydiving without a parachute, from the NBA’s best offense to its worst.

Someone during this Booker-less portion of games needed to carry the team, and more injuries have further complicated that. Using Dec. 11, the first contest Booker missed as a reference point, Chris Paul has played in 16 of the 23 games. But more importantly, Cam Payne’s only logged four of ’em. Cam Johnson only just recently returned after 37 games out.

Paul needed help, and doing it by committee wasn’t good enough. It had to be Bridges.

That was a whole lot to ask from him.

Something to understand about Bridges before we go any further is he’s never been “the guy.” Not even in high school. He didn’t put up gaudy numbers, and even when he was that dude on two championship teams at Villanova when it came to changing games, he posted 17.7 points per game in his final junior season.

When he got blitzed off the ball by the Golden State Warriors in a Jan. 10 win, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’m positive that’s the first time it’s happened on an NBA court and I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes well beyond that.

Bridges’ utilization within the Suns’ offense, both for how he was used and how often, was the Suns keeping his training wheels on while guiding him down the street.

The injuries, though, gave them no choice but to rip those off, shove him down the hill and see how he does.

Johnson’s spell in street clothes got us underway and the push led to Bridges having to go through his worst offensive stretch before his best.

Amid a run of rotten injury luck and its worst basketball of the year, Phoenix was actually fortunate Bridges’ battle of channeling newfound scoring aggression came then so he was in a better spot individually for the real test.

Speaking to the early November turn of Johnson going down, requiring Bridges to shoot more, the second game Johnson was hurt for began a run of 23 straight games of Bridges taking double-digit shot attempts. His previous career high streak was 11.

Inside that 23-game sequence was Dec. 5, the blowout loss to the Dallas Mavericks that started the aforementioned 5-17 stretch. Bridges in the first 17 games of that shot 36.1% from the field on 13.4 shots a game. His career averages coming into the season were 50.9% on 9.3 attempts.

It was too much of a jump. Too much to ask for out of an immensely valuable player. There were still positives. He avoided passive games or even segments within one. He understood what he had to do and stuck with it.

But Bridges just had to develop his confidence within that aggression and blend them together. From there, fog around the decisions and reads would dissipate, no longer partnered with hesitation.

When Paul went down earlier in January, that was the beginning of the real test.

Bridges excelled. Including two games when he was basically the point guard, Bridges averaged 20.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.7 steals per game. His terrific efficiency returned, 51.9% on a pinch over 15 shots a fixture.

It’s hard to put into words how much his offensive role has expanded, and that’s my job, so I will let the numbers do it for me before we go any further.

It has essentially been a two-year process of evolving him as an offensive player. NBA.com’s tracking data has two revealing statistics on this.

When charting the amount of dribbles each player takes before a shot, Bridges two seasons ago attempted only 135 shots after he took more than one dribble. That’s only 20.4% of his output, so basically one in five shots.

Last year, that number of 135 nearly doubled to 225. But 49 games into the 2022-23 campaign, Bridges has cleared that mark and is now at 246. That percentage is up to 38.2%.

The other huge increase comes in the average amount of time Bridges had the ball before he shoots. They are similar numbers. For shots when Bridges had the ball for at least two seconds, it was 137 two years ago, or 20.9% of his attempts.

After again nearly doubling that amount last year, Bridges’ 262 shots after holding the rock for at least two seconds is 40.6% of his attempts.

We are now talking about legitimate shot creation. Crucially, his shooting percentages are not dipping one way or the other on these more difficult attempts. For example, he shoots 48.7% when taking 3-6 dribbles on 2.3 shots a night.

And across the referenced seven-game sample before Paul came back on Sunday — so just looking at a two-week spurt instead of the whole season — the percentage of his total shots both on more than one dribble while possessing the ball at least two seconds is 58.5%!

This is the data’s way of supporting what we are seeing in terms of how often he’s creating for himself and his teammates on his own.

In the words of John Wall, I ain’t never ever, seen Bridges like this before.

The numbers can only tell so much of this story. The spots where Bridges is scoring and playmaking from are unfamiliar territory for him.

As a lead ball-handler, his decisions make or break possessions. Pull up when he should have driven? Bad read. Bad shot. Force the issue in a crowded paint when the kick-out to the corner was available? Exactly what the defense wanted and now it’s got a runout. Pass up a decent midrange look to pass it out, forcing the recipient to bail out the possession? Flow ruined.

Those dribble analytics are key because the second dribble is what it’s really about. Once he takes one to get inside the 3-point line, that’s when his instincts must be on point. Does Bridges keep driving, pull up or pass? Because of the ball screen, there is more often than not a right choice that will produce a good shot. That is the starting point of modern basketball offense.

He is figuring that out to pretty great results all things considered.

Pulling up is a good idea, especially when you’re statistically one of the league’s most proficient shot-makers in the midrange. Getting to it in pick-and-roll is becoming easier for Bridges and he’s piecing together the extra movements to create more space.

And then the hard part, the one-pass breakdown because of all the attention directed his way. Bridges this season has 12 games with at least 5 assists. He entered the year with 14 in his last two years.

When it comes to getting inside the paint on drives, Bridges has shown growth in seeking out contact. In his first 27 games, Bridges averaged 2.1 free throw attempts per game. In the last 22? Has nearly doubled to 3.7.

To be honest, I didn’t think we would reach this point with Bridges, where he was 1) given the opportunity to do this type of stuff consistently and 2) do well enough with it to earn serious consideration for reps when it really matters in April and May.

But we’re here. So it’s on the Suns to do it. As always, it will take some time, and they must commit to it. The only reason Bridges got this crucial development time is because the Suns had no other choice.

Paul wants to see the offensive diversity continue. Johnson waved him off after grabbing a rebound in Sunday’s win to take the ball up himself, something Paul said he’s been waiting for Bridges and Johnson to do (we’ve seen Bridges do it, too).

Paul’s in a new role more off the ball that, as he observed, will only get better as time goes on that is for the betterment of the team. How much the Suns can get down over the next two-plus months when it comes to incorporating Bridges and Johnson more (and how good they are at it) will likely determine how deep of a postseason run Phoenix can make.

Head coach Monty Williams spoke on Bridges stepping up and what should come next.

“I don’t know if I was watching how he would take it on,” he said Sunday. “We just felt like he needed to, to grow that part of his game but also grow that part of the team and program. It’s been well-documented that he and Cam have to be more aggressive in that area. Last year they may have been hesitant or maybe I held them back. I think the latter is probably the truth. I probably got in the way of those two being aggressive in certain environments and at certain points in the game. And now we’re just like, maybe we’ve been forced to.

“Because we’ve had so many guys out that they have to make plays in pick-and-roll or in isolation or just off the dribble at the end of the shot clock. Whereas before, I may call a timeout or say, ‘Swing it.’ I’m hopeful that they’re both going to have a chance to grow. Mikal certainly because of the time and now Cam Johnson that he’s playing again.”

Williams doesn’t care about the inefficiency at times, like how Bridges is shooting a slightly above-average 41% from the midrange this year after stellar marks of 51% and 49% the two years prior, per Cleaning the Glass.

It goes back to that blend of aggression and confidence, the sturdy foundation Bridges can place his foot down and take the next step.

“I hope so,” Williams said of that notion. “If I was a player like that, I wouldn’t even look at my percentages. I’d look at the results, I’d look at my growth as far as confidence is concerned in those moments.”

It’s some good returns on those results.

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