The Phoenix Suns have a “reps remove doubt” mantra, which is why it wasn’t surprising to see Mikal Bridges go off in Game 2 of the NBA Finals.
Much like the first year or two of his NBA career, the results on the offensive end just weren’t bearing out for the majority of Mikal Bridges‘ first playoff run. In both cases, while he offered stout, multi-positional defense, his scoring numbers and shooting percentages weren’t quite where they needed to be for the Phoenix Suns to truly take flight.
But if Bridges’ first postseason has been symbolic of those early struggles in his first two seasons, Game 2 of the NBA Finals represented the breakthrough he showed in last year’s bubble.
And with the unfaltering work he’s put in, no one was surprised.
“We have a saying, ‘reps remove doubt,’” head coach Monty Williams said. “If you get your work in, you can trust your work.”
On Thursday night, Devin Booker‘s 3-point barrage wound up burying the Milwaukee Bucks’ final comeback attempts, but Bridges helped pace the Suns all night with a playoff career-high 27 points and 7 rebounds on 8-of-15 shooting. He knocked down three triples, added in a steal and made all eight of his free throws to close the game out.
Heading into the Finals, Bridges hadn’t enjoyed a signature playoff game like his fellow Suns youngsters — Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton or even the underrated Cameron Johnson, all of whom were also playing in their first postseason. Through Phoenix’s first 16 playoff games, Bridges averaged 10.8 points per game on 46.8 percent shooting, including 35.1 percent from 3-point range. Those aren’t terrible numbers by any means, but they were significantly down from the 13.5 points per game on 54.3 percent shooting and 42.5 percent 3-point shooting he posted during the regular season.
The LA Clippers series was a significant step backwards, as his numbers dipped to 8.7 points per game on 23.9 percent shooting from long range. Even worse, “Mikal Jail” was becoming a rarer and rarer occurrence on the defensive end. So what was the conversation with Monty Williams like that helped Bridges snap out of his conference finals funk before reaching basketball’s biggest stage?
“There wasn’t any,” Williams said. “I just think this time of the year the last thing I want to do is crowd anybody’s mind. I tell our guys to go hoop. I don’t want them thinking about their shots or whatever may be deemed as a struggle. When you put the work in the way these guys have and we have trusted them all season long, when a guy struggles in the playoffs, I don’t want to get in his head. If anything, I want him to continue to shoot.”
Once again, reps remove doubt. And that should’ve been expected given the way Bridges’ trajectory has unfolded early in his NBA career.
Mikal Bridges finally has his signature playoff game
Williams wasn’t around for Bridges’ rookie season, when a career 40 percent 3-point shooter during his three years at Villanova came into the NBA with an unseemly hitch that appeared out of nowhere. The young 3-and-D wing shot just 33.5 percent from deep during his first year in the league, and he was prone to disappearing on offense.
After that 2018 draft-day trade that brought him to Phoenix, it’s easy to forget how the Suns were largely ridiculed for giving up a future, unprotected Miami Heat pick to the Philadelphia 76ers for an “older” NBA rookie like Bridges.
But much like it did in Game 2 of the NBA Finals two years later, the work ethic that would eventually pay off was apparent to Devin Booker and the rest of the Suns. The process would eventually bear itself out … even if it wasn’t part of the Process going on in Philly.
“You saw the type of work, his focus is there every single moment,” Booker said. “You get to the gym, Mikal’s there and he’s putting in extra work, he’s there after. People will still try to label him as a 3-and-D guy, and I’ve told you guys multiple times, that’s not even close to his game. I think he stole a little ‘going left fade’ from me a bit. I think he took that out of my book, but he gets it going. And if teams want to try to make him be the one to beat them, he’ll do it.”
That was the case on Thursday night. After getting sliced and diced by Booker and Chris Paul in Game 1 on pick-and-rolls, the Bucks adjusted by trying to crowd Phoenix’s guards at all times, hedging and clogging up space with their strong-side wing defenders. But thanks to the Suns’ impeccable ball movement, that strategy opened Milwaukee up to a bevy of 3-pointers. Phoenix made 20 of its 40 long-range attempts, marking a postseason franchise record and just the third time in league history where a team made at least 20 3s in a Finals game.
Bridges only shot 3-for-9 from downtown, but after knocking down a few open looks early on, his attacks off the dribble and ability to hit mid-range jumpers became a thorn in the Bucks’ side for the rest of the night.
“I think tonight, anyway, he recognized once he started making shots and they ran him off the line, he was getting to his spot. Sometimes he would get close to the basket, but he would get to a spot where he can make that seven, eight-foot jump shot. He’s been doing that all year, it’s just that everybody’s seeing it now.”
Bridges’ developing penchant for attacking hasty closeouts off the dribble and pulling up for easy mid-range looks may not be on par with Booker or CP3 just yet, but the 24-year-old has been doing this all season long. It had just been missing for the better part of the postseason until the championship round began.
For his part, the two-time NCAA champion believes the origins of that offensive versatility trace back to his Wildcats days.
“It started in college, when I came off the bench on our championship team, I wasn’t shooting the ball that well and I had to figure out ways to score, and it was cutting and driving it,” Bridges said. “So, once I went to my last year of college, and I was shooting it really well, it was just a mix of everything.”
Finding the right balance between spot-up shooting and attacking off the bounce can be difficult for any young NBA player — especially so on teams with primary ball-handlers like Booker, Paul and Ricky Rubio. But as his 3-point efficiency improved from 33.5 percent as a rookie to 36.1 percent last year to more familiar territory at 42.5 percent this season, everything else opened up. Bridges got away from it during the Clippers series, but he’s reintegrating it now on basketball’s biggest stage.
“Sometimes I get so focused on wanting to hit that 3, if I haven’t touched it in a while and I just want to get one up, I think it’s always, ‘Let me hit this 3 and get myself going,’” he admitted. “I have my teammates and I’ll give E’Twaun [Moore] a shoutout, he’s the one that talks to me. I know especially in that Clippers series when I wasn’t getting it going, and he was just like, ‘Mix it up, try and get to the rim.’ And I’m like, ‘Damn, that’s what I was doing and I just forgot.’”
He’s not forgetting anymore. Through the first two games of the Finals, Bridges is averaging 20.5 points per game on superb .459/.417/1.000 shooting splits. That’s a small sample size, to be sure, but him winning his individual matchup against Khris Middleton (20.0 points per game on .405/.333/.000 shooting splits) is a big part of the reason Phoenix is up 2-0 in the series.
That pendulum could swing back in Milwaukee’s favor in Game 3; the Bucks will be back home, away from the new madhouse that is PHX Arena, and Middleton is too good a player to hold down. After all, he did have a solid Game 1 performance.
But it was striking on Thursday night to see Bridges, a player whose ceiling is frequently compared to Middleton, thoroughly outplay him on both ends. Bridges helped hold the two-time All-Star to 11 points, and on the other end, he outscored him by 16 despite taking one fewer shot attempt.
“He had it going,” Booker said. “He takes a lot of pressure off of everybody. And the most impressive part is he’s always guarding the most dynamic scorer on the other team. Middleton is not an easy matchup, and that’s his matchup every night and he has to do a lot on the other end. So for him to still have his legs, still have his focus to make the plays that he did, it takes a lot of pressure off everybody.”
Booker and CP3 were the ones taking and making big shots down the stretch, but the decisive sequence that may have quelled Milwaukee’s best chance at making it a game came in the fourth quarter. That run-stopper was all thanks to Bridges and Ayton hitting the offensive glass, closing out a key stop and then Bridges sealing the mini-run with a gorgeous up-and-under after attacking a closeout:
“That play by Mikal, DA had one to kick out for a 3, those are the kinds of relentless plays that we have been talking about all year,” Williams said. “We have a ‘we score’ mentality, and when DA and Mikal give it up like that and other guys score, it’s like they scored. That’s how we view it.”
That sequence — aside from being emblematic of Ayton’s growth on a bad night and Monty’s intrinsic worth as the guy who should’ve won Coach of the Year — is the culmination of Bridges developing into a two-way force whose value extends far beyond the 3-and-D archetype.
The defense was always there, but the 3-point stroke is here now. So is the mid-range game and lethal finishing in transition. Next will come finishing around and through contact, as well as drawing contact to get to the free-throw line.
The ceiling for Mikal Bridges and this team is rising, and the reps are removing doubt.
“I be on ‘Kal so crazy, you know what I mean, because ‘Kal is just a winner,” Chris Paul said. “When we won the Western Conference Finals, I looked at him and I had a flashback of him being at Villanova. I remember him winning a championship there. He’s just a winner. He’s going to do whatever you need him to do, offensively or defensively, and it’s good to see him playing like this.”