Tuesday’s tilt between the Phoenix Suns and Golden State
Warriors at the Footprint Center was being hyped up as the game of
the year in the NBA, and for good reason.
The two teams were carrying the best records in the league, and
both were riding win streaks of at least seven games (the Warriors
at 7, the Suns at 16). In the end, the Suns won 104-96 to extend
their streak to 17, but not in a way anyone really expected.
When Devin Booker went down late in the first half with a
hamstring injury, many people's expectations for the game shifted.
Once Phoenix lost its star shooting guard, my eyes focused on one
matchup that would ultimately decide the flow of the game for both
sides: Stephen Curry trying to free himself for open-shot
opportunities against Mikal Bridges.
Every single second Curry was in the game, Bridges followed.
More often than not, Bridges was tailing Curry the entire length of
the court until the Warriors ran actions to free a tiny amount of
space for the early 2021-22 MVP favorite.
The Suns’ game plan was simple: They were more than willing to
let Jordan Poole try to beat them single-handedly — and he finished
with 28 points on 9-of-12 shooting — but there’s no chance Curry
was going to have an easy go of it. Curry had one of the worst
shooting performances of his illustrious career, shooting 4-of-21
from the field. Of all the games in which Curry has attempted at
least 20 shots, this was his most inefficient outing of his career.
Bridges put Curry in the torture chamber and made everything
difficult in the 36 minutes he was on the floor.
According to NBA.com's matchup
data, Curry scored 0 points and was only able to get up three shots
when guarded one-on-one by Bridges over 7:21 of action. One image
stuck out to me from media row at the Footprint Center and it's
been engrained in my head ever since: Curry, with his hands on his
knees, trying to catch his breath as Bridges was still right in his
hip pocket, not allowing the Warriors star any sort of opening to
create for himself on the perimeter. It was a masterclass
performance from Bridges, who continues to stamp his case on a
national stage for serious consideration for Defensive
Player of the Year.
Bridges finished Tuesday’s game with 2 points, making no impact
on the offensive end. However, it’s fair to argue that he was the
most impactful player on either side. Bridges’ suffocation of Curry
was one of the most dominant 2-point performances in the NBA
history, and I feel like that’s not hyperbole.
Postgame, Bridges deflected from the individual attention he
received for shutting down one of the game’s most gifted scorers,
instead speaking on the Suns’ overall team defense.
“It’s really just a whole team effort. What I really did was
just be aggressive and be attached, but a lot of screens and a lot
of reads,” Bridges said. “But it’s a whole team thing because if
one guy messes up on a switch, there’s a slip or there’s a three
for him (Curry), so it’s a team effort. I think our coverages and
what the coaches put together and our schemes were really good and
we executed it pretty well.”
Over the Suns’ last two games, Bridges has put the clamps on
James Harden (2 points on 0-for-2 shooting over seven minutes of
one-on-one matchup time) and Curry, arguably two of the best
scorers in the modern era of basketball. Looking back on the Suns’
four-year, $90 million extension for Bridges on the eve of the
regular season, his defense alone is worth that value on top of his
improved sharpshooting prowess.
Bridges wasn’t the only impressive portion of the Suns’
franchise record-tying 17th-straight victory. I’ve mentioned this
before, but Phoenix is a team that made the NBA Finals last season
and improved its roster even further for a potential repeat trip.
Already possessing one of the NBA’s best bench units, Phoenix
acquired Landry Shamet via a draft-night trade and signed veteran
center JaVale McGee for more size and rim protection down low. Both
players showed up last night, and have continued to fit perfectly
within the Suns’ system.
When Booker was ruled out for the remainder of this early-season
showdown in Phoenix — potentially a preview of the Western
Conference Finals five months from now — Shamet and Cam Johnson
picked up the slack and carried the Suns across the finish
Again, it’s another shining example of how general manager James
Jones has rebuilt the Suns’ roster from the foundational levels
since replacing Ryan McDonough. Jones brought in the ideal coach to
empower a young core in Monty Williams, and he brought aboard
passionate veterans who cared about the game (Ricky Rubio, Kelly
Oubre Jr., etc.), which ultimately led to his all-in move: trading
for Chris Paul.
Now, in three years, the Suns have gone from laughingstock to
juggernaut thanks to Jones’ championship pedigree and knowledge of
how to build a sustainable contender.
On Thursday, the Suns host the Detroit Pistons to potentially
clinch a new franchise record for consecutive wins. If it happens,
even without Booker (who will be sidelined for a few games for
precautionary reasons, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski),
it’s a crescendo moment — a culmination of all the hard work that
has gone into rebuilding Phoenix Suns basketball after the
franchise laid dormant for over a decade.
“Just a lot of work, a lot of mental toughness, staying with it.
We knew, when we first got here, that we wanted to turn it around,”
Bridges said postgame about the Suns’ journey from the bottom to
the top in short order. "I remember seeing [Deandre Ayton] and
actually realizing that we’re going to be on the same team. He kind
of actually helped me when I got traded from Philly, because I was
upset, and I was just with him at the college awards in L.A. That
was the first time I met him and we were together for like two
days, and got close. Once I realized we were on the same team, you
see someone with that. At least I know somebody that is going to be
there, and that kind of made me happy.
"It’s just a lot of mental toughness, man. We stayed with it and
we knew we were coming here to try to turn it around. Plus, we had
Monty and everybody that came in. Obviously [Devin] Booker is here,
but getting CP (Chris Paul), Jae [Crowder] and everybody who we
drafted and picked up — it just turned out to be a really good
team. It really feels like a college locker room, because in
college you’re forced to really like each other because you live
together and see each other every single day, you have classes
together and study hall together. It feels like a college team,
man, and I’m just grateful for this.”
The Suns are just getting started, and their championship window
is nowhere close to shutting. If anything, last season was the
beginning and the window just started to crack open. So far in
2021-22, the Suns are on the verge of shattering that window
entirely and re-creating a new golden age in the Valley.