Midway through the third quarter of a February duel between the
Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers, with the score knotted at
62, Deandre Ayton surveys his options from the top of the
His two primary ball-handlers, Chris Paul and Devin Booker, are
stationed on opposite wings with their defenders close by. Feeding
one of them the ball would require Ayton to enter the orbit of the
Clippers' pesky, handsy forwards and risk a turnover.
Instead, Ayton turns his attention toward Mikal Bridges, who has
the smaller, less defensively-inclined Reggie Jackson on him. The
two connect for a dribble handoff. Bridges bounces two determined
dribbles into the paint, pirouettes and buries a jumper over the
It was one of Bridges’ 8 field goals on the evening en route to
19 points. A day later, he scored 17 in a win against the Houston
Over his past 11 games, the fourth-year wing is logging 19.4
points on 70.6% True Shooting while averaging 12.5 field goal
attempts per night. All of those marks are significant increases
from the 12.3 points on 59.6% TS and 9.5 shots he averaged across
his first 47 games this season. His free-throw rate has also
skyrocketed from .126 to .268, which is an apt proxy for the
difference in his amended scoring process.
Bridges is enjoying the most prolific offensive stretch of his
career, both because he’s emerging more aggressive in seeking his
shots and because that newfound aggression is paralleled by
During this flurry, he’s shooting 94.1% at the rim (32 of 34)
and 66.7% from mid-range (34 of 51), according to Cleaning The
Glass. Neither of those clips is sustainable, but Phoenix doesn’t
need him to be this good for his scoring development to be
a difference-maker. Seizing three more shots per game and the
manner in which he’s doing so are the most salient long-term
storylines of this breakout.
He’s beginning to fully realize just how potent he can be in
exploiting pockets of space on the floor. His mid-range touch,
creativity as a finisher and 7-1 wingspan enable him to comfortably
discover shots within a well-oiled offense that’s constantly
forcing defenders to play catch up.
Recently, he’s been forcefully attacking off the catch and
pressing the issue as a scorer more often. When he finds himself in
a beneficial matchup, he’s not surrendering that advantage if an
initial move doesn’t work.
Opponents have to devote their best perimeter stoppers to Paul
and Booker, which leaves Bridges with favorable assignments
regularly. Now, he’s operating as though he knows why they’re
favorable assignments for him rather than being told they are, or
others merely assuming they are.
Not only has Bridges earned a greater slice of the pie, but
Phoenix is also putting him in more spots to thrive. Through 47
games this year, he's averaged 35 total touches, 2.4 paint touches
and 1.5 elbow touches per game, according to NBA.com.
Over the past 11 outings, those numbers are up to 40.5, 3.7, and
2.5, respectively. Primarily through handoffs, Horns actions or
pindowns, the Suns are emphasizing chances to send Bridges
downhill, and he’s validating their credence.
Anecdotally, it also feels like they’re utilizing him more as an
on-ball screener in half-court sets. He’s long linked up with Paul
in early offense to slip screens and finish before the defense is
organized. Lately, though, that action appears less confined to
early offense environments.
Bridges is more loudly asserting himself, and doesn’t require a
vacant runway to convert in the paint as much as he used to in
these instances. Whether he’s expertly sealing off a switch as he
rolls inside or further showcasing bubbling confidence as a scorer,
his screening capabilities have certainly factored into the
Two of Bridges’ highest-scoring games amid this streak have
included him getting busy in the post. He repeatedly torched Trae
Young when he dropped 24 against the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 3. Two
days earlier, when he scored 27, targeting the Brooklyn Nets’ slew
of limited defenders on the block was prominently
He’s got a slick turnaround on lock, and Phoenix’s willingness
to up the tempo this year (seventh in pace, 24th last season)
sparks cross-matches in transition. And, again, he benefits from
Paul and Booker drawing the stiffest of perimeter defenders,
leaving him to punish ill-equipped options.
Against switch-heavy schemes — which seem more common than last
season — Bridges’ post scoring could be an intermittent, reliable
release valve moving forward, especially given his heightened
Bridges maintaining this retooled approach throughout Phoenix's
presumably deep playoff run (get well soon, CP) is critical.
During their four Finals losses last season, the Suns' Offensive
Rating was 108.2 (114.3 in 18 postseason games before that), and
they couldn’t keep up on either end.
The Milwaukee Bucks’ stellar defense and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s
greatness played roles in that demise. But Phoenix’s inability to
consistently manufacture quality looks outside of Booker’s creation
skills once Paul’s pick-and-roll prowess was neutralized proved
Bridges participated in that inability. Mercurial offensive
production helped define his first playoff appearance. In 22 total
postseason games, he scored 13 or more points nine times, and 7 or
fewer seven times. Steadiness is a hallmark of his services, but
that wasn’t the case last postseason.
As the Bucks rattled off four straight wins to secure the title,
Bridges averaged just 7.8 points on 5.3 shots. Record-scratches and
diminished conviction plagued him, so much so that his minutes were
cut at times too.
Bridges being someone whose 15-point games are the norm, not the
outlier, can help amplify both the Chris Paul Era and post-Chris
Paul Era in Phoenix. He, Booker and Ayton are all 25 or younger.
Prosperity in The Valley will exist with and without Paul
How much prosperity depends, to some degree, on whether Bridges’
recent flashes of something more offensively are merely
flashes or the start of a sustained rise.
There’s absolutely reason to believe it’s the latter. The
process and the results are better. When those two coalesce, hope
gives way to tangible evidence. And tangible evidence is central to
Bridges’ February game film.
The rise is real. These next several months are his chance to
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