For the first time in nearly a decade, the Phoenix Suns are playing with expectations of making the playoffs.
That’s something that the Valley’s oldest professional sports franchise has failed to do since the 2009-10 season when the likes of Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire were still running the offense.
Fast forward to the beginning of the 2020-21 NBA season and the Suns find themselves tied atop the Western Conference with both the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers at 5-2.
“I’m happy for the people of this city, they deserve it,” Suns small forward Mikal Bridges told Arizona Sports’ Doug & Wolf on Tuesday.
“Especially what they had with Nash and Stoudemire — how crazy that was with them, how good they were. So we appreciate [the fans] and all the love they give us and we’re just trying to help them win games and feel that type of vibe again.”
Now in his third year, Bridges has emerged into a full-time starter for head coach Monty Williams in his second season at the helm in Phoenix.
But the road to being selected to the Suns’ starting five wasn’t an easy one for the 24-year-old small forward.
In fact, Williams had to use some tough love on Bridges last year in order to get through to him. But when he did, boy did it click.
“He’s helped me a lot, told me the stuff that you really don’t want to hear as a player and it shows how mentally tough I am,” Bridges said.
“He could’ve easily said something and I could’ve held it in and been mad at him and not talked to him, but he told me the honest truth and what I needed to do to be out there in my second year. I took that as, ‘I understand I need to get better so I can play’ and I did that so I appreciate everything he’s done for me and helped me turn into who I am today and he just keeps trying to get me better.”
So what exactly was the problem after averaging 8.3 points, 2.1 assists and 1.6 steals his rookie season while playing in all 82 games (56 starts) under then-head coach Igor Kokoskov?
“Coming off of my rookie year… personally I felt myself get a little too confident thinking I was just going to come in a play right away,” Bridges said. “I kind of I guess wasn’t putting in as much work when the season started as I should have and I wasn’t playing that much in the beginning and I talked to him about it.
“He said you’re not working hard enough and things like that. I took that as a challenge and throughout the season just kept going harder, kept working harder, kept doing the little things even more. I started starting right after the All-Star break and just kept starting and kept getting better ever since.”
Through seven games this year, Bridges is averaging a career-best 14.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game while also shooting 46.3% percentage from three.
An attributing factor to that spike in productivity is the Suns’ offseason addition of 10-time All-Star point guard Chris Paul, who Bridges says has been an immense help to him and the entire team on both ends of the court.
“He’s an unbelievable leader, person and player,” Bridges said of Paul. “On the court, he’s just such a wizard. He just knows everything, knows where we should be, where the defense should be, just that great of a player.
“He helps me because he finds me when I’m open and I’ll just go shoot that thing so he helps me a lot getting my points up. He’s another anchor on both ends of the court and is always there talking and helping everybody out.”