Phoenix Suns forwards Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson were having a conversation on the flight from Detroit to Indiana. Among the topics was their best overall games and career-high numbers thus far in their young NBA careers.
“I told him yesterday on the plane he’s due for a big one today and I knew it was coming,” Johnson said.
The second-year wing is quite the prophet. Bridges had a career-high 34 points, lifting the Suns to their best offensive performance of the season for their best win of the season, a 125-117 final over the Indiana Pacers on Saturday.
The Suns had a staggering 33 assists and only three turnovers, with that second number tying a franchise record. And the context amplifies how impressive the effort was.
Phoenix was playing the night after its worst loss of the season to the Pistons, one in which three different starters — Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker and Chris Paul — played at least 37 minutes. Saturday was the second game of a back-to-back on the road, and against the Pacers, one of the league’s best teams.
Additionally, backup point guard Cam Payne, who has been stellar this season, was out due to a right ankle sprain. That meant head coach Monty Williams could either insert another player in the rotation or tweak it. He chose the latter, having Booker or Paul run the offense for all 48 minutes as they spent less time on the floor together than they had all season.
The results were quite good!
“Those two guys facilitate so much offense for us,” Williams said. “They see the game the same. They can score but they see their partners out there and they take advantage of the opportunities. We had 33 assists tonight, only 3 turnovers, I think in part because those two had the ball most of the game initiating offense.”
Williams said the Suns ran more pick-and-roll than they normally do, going on to mention that maybe that’s something they should do more for Paul specifically with his ability in those looks.
The game had 14 lead changes in the first half. The Suns found their mojo and fifth gear in the third quarter, and if not for the Pacers’ Domantas Sabonis, it would have been a blowout.
Sabonis had 20 of his 28 points and nine of his 22 rebounds in the third. That alleviated some of the pressure Phoenix was bringing with a 34-point third quarter, but it kept coming with 35 more in the fourth.
That was led by Booker, who had the first All-World type of performance by a Suns player this season in crunch time. Booker was outstanding, creating an open look or scoring on nearly every possession, doing it through ruthless energy.
“It just raises everybody’s effort. We really get to scrapping and going after teams, and when that energy level picks up, I think we can be pretty dangerous and we have been pretty dangerous,” Johnson said.
Williams said the signature play of the game was Booker’s steal off an inbounds pass and dunk off that in the early fourth quarter.
Book entered the game at 98-96 with 9 mins to go.
Reads the inbound here and throws it down.
— David Kevin (@theIVpointplay) January 10, 2021
That bucket put the Suns up six with 7:56 to go and was the start of a 15-4 run over four minutes that Booker set up or scored every point for.
Whirly bird signal again AKA same play.
Spain PnR but with Jae this time.
This is the play of the game for mine. Book threads the pass the exact moment Sabonis is ‘handing’ Ayton back to Turner. pic.twitter.com/sKugnn09h8
— David Kevin (@theIVpointplay) January 10, 2021
Don’t let Booker’s average statistical night — by his standards — of 25 points and seven assists fool you.
This was the return of “the bad man” stretches we saw from Booker in the bubble, the final form Booker reaches when he single-handedly takes over and wins games late.
The Suns had just two free throw attempts at the end of the first half but finished with 17, making all of them.
Paul had 15 points and 10 assists. He and Booker had zero turnovers.
Bridges, not Ayton, Booker or Paul, was the first Suns player to score 30 points in a game this season. He was sensational, attacking the basket with an extra gear as a slasher we haven’t seen before.
As you can see by those highlights, Bridges can recreate a lot of those baskets. His ability to get an easy 15 points a night off threes, transition opportunities and rim attacks drastically alters the offensive dynamic of the team.
Paul spoke highly of Bridges when asked how he felt to see Bridges have that type of night.
“Man, one of the best feelings. Been around a lot of guys in this league over the years and he’s one of the best guys I think I’ve ever been around,” Paul said. “So to see him do well and to see his game blossoming the way it is, it’s nice because he deserves it.”
Paul had more on Bridges, grinning as he weaved his way through the best way to describe some of Bridges’ personality.
“Aside from Mikal taking pretty much the toughest defensive assignment night in night out … he can hoop, he nice, but then … he’s slick man. You gotta watch him. He’s real slick with his tongue,” Paul said. “A fun guy, a very fun guy to be around. He just got a great spirit about him.”
What Paul is getting at is Bridges’ sense of humor and wit, which I can say first-hand even from limited interactions, is awesome. He’s hilarious. The Suns’ locker room postgame soaked Bridges with ice water after the game.
And here’s what he had to say on it:
Mikal Bridges the mastermind never forgets. pic.twitter.com/SNEyu6uhIF
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) January 10, 2021
“He’s one of those guys (where) when I kick it to him and he gets his shot, I feel like I made it,” Paul said.
Bridges is the guy that embodies what the Suns are about more than anybody else on the team.
“His nickname should be Every Day because he’s the same guy every single day,” Williams said. “Always has a great attitude, works his tail off, has a great edge about him, treats everybody with unreal respect, and yet he goes out there on the floor and plays like he’s a football player, a nut sometimes. I love the balance that he has and I just love to see guys who work hard and have the work pay off for them.
“He’s been a bit of a flagship for our player development program and I’m just happy to see him not just doing it on the offensive end but he does it every night on the defensive end. Even when he doesn’t stop his guy, he’s gonna give you great effort. That’s what our team is based upon. We compete every night and we try to defend and share the basketball.”
Bridges has the hard parts figured out. He’s a great all-around defender and makes split-second reactionary plays that elevate glue guys like him to another level.
The aggression and confidence he is playing with offensively are making him even better defensively. After those developments, the consistency in his offensive impact is next, and that’s the easy part! That’ll come with time.
Bridges has cemented himself as the third-best player on the team. Bridges will keep lessening the blow of a No. 1 pick not reaching his potential the more he improves. Nights like Saturday, a hard-earned win against a great Pacers team that gave the Suns everything they had, exemplify the importance of that.
Phoenix can beat most teams’ best shot when Bridges is playing like that.