Phoenix Suns get clutch with Mikal Bridges to beat Raptors

Jan 30, 2023, 11:27 PM | Updated: 11:40 pm

PHOENIX — Now these Phoenix Suns, them I recognize.

No, not to a 64-win degree, but the Suns got roughly a dozen of those by doing enough right in the last five minutes of a close game that was mostly indifferent when it came to who was the better side for the first 43.

They haven’t had nearly enough of those types of victories this season but picked up one on Monday by a score of 114-106 over the Toronto Raptors.

Phoenix was sharper and was winning in the little categories for the first half but things immediately went sideways in the third quarter. A 20-4 Raptors run in the first 5:04 of the second half put them up seven.

Fortunately for the Suns (27-25), their bench revitalized the team’s bad energy over that span to get the game close down to the wire.

With 3:20 left and Phoenix down one, it chose to run the offense through Mikal Bridges, a wise choice with how masterful he was as master of closing ceremonies in Saturday’s win. He was also having a terrific night on Monday, scoring a career-high 16 of his 29 points in the first quarter, the most for him in any quarter.

Bridges drilled back-to-back middies on nearly identical sets to put the Suns up three. (I would have loved to have seen Devin Booker’s reaction from the bench on the second bucket when Bridges spun back into the screen. That’s nasty work right there, Mr. Bridges.)

Once Toronto’s (23-29) Fred VanVleet answered with a 2 of his own, it was the same design for Bridges the next time down but on the other side of the floor.

While Bridges missed, Torrey Craig skied into the air for one of his signature acrobatic offensive rebounds. As a guy in that situation plenty, Craig had the presence of mind to immediately find an open Chris Paul for a 3-pointer that was the biggest play of the game.

After a VanVleet misfire, Craig took an opening to the lane and missed a lay-up before Deandre Ayton tipped the ball in the net.

Now with the game in a do-or-die state for Toronto, down six and under a minute left, Scottie Barnes couldn’t hit a 3 and the contested rebound was grabbed by Cam Johnson, who made a few huge plays on that end in the latter stages.

If you’re keeping track at home, that’s all five Suns starters who contributed to those moments.

Bridges’ 12-of-19 mark on the 29-point night included six assists, three steals and a block. Head coach Monty Williams turned to Bridges as the team’s point guard when Paul rested in the second quarter and Bridges made two ridiculous passes considering his experience level as “the guy” on the ball.

This is a direct take and smooth no-look feed.

And how about leading the receiver here like a quarterback?

Bridges’ crunch-time heroics make it two games in a row where he’s won the game as the go-to scorer late. To go back to the nearly identical sets part of that, that is something that Paul and Booker do all the time.

Paul will go to one play design, see success with it and run the same thing to death with small variations here and there. But when Paul is calling that out now, he’s doing so for Bridges, a hard to believe statement.

“He and Chris knew we couldn’t run the same play, then they went a different route,” Williams said of it. “Same kind of play but just took a different route and he came off and got another good opportunity for us. That’s the maturation that you look for in guys down the stretch, where you’re able to run the same play but run the counter to try to get a good shot for your team.”

“It’s cool, man,” Paul added on the process. “He make it one time and then I’ll look and be like, ‘Hey, we gonna run it again on this side.’ When you start having the ball a lot and you’re a scorer, you start figuring those things out.”

For Bridges to pick up those tweaks with Paul and execute the reads is tremendous growth.

“You’re watching Mikal in those moments come through,” Williams said of Bridges. “I think the guys are feeding him a lot of confidence but he has his own confidence because he’s putting the work in and he’s not worried about the consequences. … Chris was really good about putting him in his spots.”

Paul co-signed the amount of winning situations Bridges has been in the last two-plus years as helping Bridges be ready for this and also credited the stretch he and Booker missed.

“When we both were out, it’s a lot of responsibility on him,” Paul said. “One time during the game tonight, I was on the bench and I said, ‘It’s crazy having to make every play, ain’t it?'”

You can imagine how much seeing the All-Star duo do it prior helped Bridges.

“I’m just grateful to have guys like C and Book and just be able to watch them and see what they do, how they get to they spots, get to they shots,” Bridges said. “We’re all hoopers at the end of the day (so) you know if one play keeps working we’re going to keep going to it.”

Once Booker returns from a left groin strain that has kept him out 18 games, the longest stretch of his career, the Suns can begin experimenting with three different end-of-game options.

“That fourth quarter right there, shoot that’s nice,” Paul said. “It’s nice, man. Being in my third year here, a lot of times it’s me or Book. That’s just gonna make us that much more dangerous when 1 get back.”

Johnson had an off shooting night, 1-for-9 and 1-of-6 on 3s, but made those aforementioned big plays.

“Cam, I think he’s gonna be like this for a while now,” Williams said. “Where he shoots lights out and then he’s gonna have nights like tonight but the thing that I love about our guys is they can have tough shooting nights but find different ways to affect the game.”

Dario Saric (11 points) was solid again and Phoenix got big-time minutes from Ish Wainright. The two-way forward was the first reserve off the bench and responded with seven points, three rebounds, three assists and three steals in 20 minutes.

Paul added 19 points and nine assists while Ayton contributed 22 points and 13 rebounds.

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