In college at Villanova, small forward Mikal Bridges was a key component on two National Championship squads under legendary head coach Jay Wright. Until he reached the NBA, Bridges did not even know what losing looked like, let alone abject losing.
Then the Phoenix Suns drafted him with the 10th pick in the 2018 and he was introduced to the real meaning of abject losing.
Three months after he was drafted and before he even played his first regular season game, the guy who drafted him and that guy’s entire scouting department were canned. Then the losing started. Seven of his first eight games were losses. Twenty-four of his first twenty-eight. When the season mercifully ended, 63 of 81 were losses, by a conference-worst and franchise-worst average scoring margin of minus-9.3 points. Bleccchh.
Bridges played the third-most minutes on that 63-loss team, getting a first hand look at seeing his team down big in nearly every single game, and especially against the good ones.
Year two was better. The Suns won nearly as many games and they lost (34 wins, 39 losses) and finished the season on an eight-game winning streak with him in the starting lineup.
And now year three could be truly stellar. The Suns kept their core from last season — seven of the top eight rotation players from the 8-0 Bubble run — and added top end talent with Chris Paul, a tough starter in Jae Crowder, and bolstered the shooting and experience on the bench.
Bridges now expects year three in the NBA to be what he’s always wanted, but hasn’t had since Villanova.
To him, that means his opponent no longer looking down at him and his team. Instead, it means them knowing they have to play their best game for a chance to win.
“As a competitor, who doesn’t want to be at the highest level and get everybody’s best?” Bridges said to local reporters in his first press conference of the new year. “Who wants to be not that good, so when teams come in here to your city, your arena, people are like ‘oh this is a night off’ type of game, maybe we could just be lackadaisical and come in here and just win it. Who wants to be that lower team and be like ‘oh maybe we can get one from them!’”
Mikal is recounting his personal experience here, from years one and two with the Suns. He knows all too well what it’s like to be the worse team.
Now he’s ready for a new experience.
“Underdogs, I get it, I understand that,” he said. “But I love getting everybody’s best fight and I feel like we got that respect towards the end of [last] year. And now adding the pieces we have now, nobody’s gonna take us lightly. And I love that. I want everybody’s best shot. It’s just the competitiveness in myself and I know everybody on the team.”
Bridges is projected as the starter at small forward with two of his starting mates for that awful losing experience the last two years, Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker.
But now the point guard running the show is future Hall of Famer Chris Paul, possibly the “best point guard of his generation” according to coach Monty Williams. And his bench consists of high performers from the Bubble plus a pair of veteran shooters in Langston Galloway and E’Twaun Moore.
But the meat of the team — seven of the top eight rotation players, as well as the coaching staff — are right back where they left off in August. That group went into Orlando with zero expectations, the second-worst of the 22 teams invited. People made jokes that the Suns were just sparring partners to get the real playoff teams ready for the postseason after four-month quarantine from COVID-19. Some, including ESPN and B/R, even predicted the Suns could go winless (0-8).
But you all know what REALLY happened. That Suns squad tore through their opponents with the BEST winning margin of all 22 teams. And not just squeaking by, but walloping them. The Suns average margin of +13.1 in those eight games nearly doubled up the next-best team (Boston Celtics, +7.4) and nearly tripled the fourth-best (Toronto Raptors, +4.5).
Bridges was at the center of the Suns surge as the starter at small forward.
“How connected we got,” Bridges said of his fondest memory from the Orlando Bubble. “How we knew every game mattered. Not just our first couple players, not just our starting five, not just our sixth man, it’s gonna take everybody.”
The only player missing now from that big run is Ricky Rubio, who was upgraded to Chris Paul. I’ll take that.
Otherwise, all of Bridges, Ayton, Booker, Cameron Johnson, Dario Saric, Jevon Carter and Cameron Payne are back.
“We just came together as a team, man,” Bridges recalls. “And knew that it was win or go home, like college (NCAA tourney) atmosphere. Every game counts. You have to go out there and win every one to at least have a shot to make the playoffs. It wasn’t even that we could control our own fate. Obviously we didn’t make it [the Suns finished one win short of playoff qualiffication], but it just showed that when our backs are against the wall, we can’t lose and we need to win, how tough and mentally tough we are.
“It’s not easy knowing you have to win eight games to have a chance. It’s not like you could go 7-1. You really need to win all eight. So just being mentally tough up there (points to his head), and not thinking about the eighth game or seventh game, just taking it game by game, day by day, practice by practice. One game, we win, okay lock in. Next day, focus on that practice, then focus on our next opponent. Just day by day, keep grinding, until the last game.”
The whole Suns core will remember that turning point for their team. And now that they have added Paul, Crowder, Galloway and Moore, the expectations are higher than ever.
How will the Suns approach the 2020-21 season? Same as they did in the Bubble.
“Just lock in. Every day, every practice,” Bridges said. “We got the right group of guys (from players to coaches to trainers). I have a lot of confidence in us. I’m just excited and can’t wait for training camp to start.”
The Suns are working out at the new Performance Center in the Arcadia area of Phoenix this week. Due to COVID precautions, the players are all doing individual work with a coach through today. The first group practice is scheduled for Friday.
The NBA announced that about 10% of the league’s players tested positive for COVID-19 over the past week as they returned to their home cities for training camp and began daily testing. Players who test positive will need to quarantine alone for number of days until they are both symptom free AND test negative two days in a row (at least 24 hours apart). None of the names have been revealed.
The Suns will not reveal the names of anyone who tested positive. But if we put on our super-sleuth hats we can guess that they won’t let players do media time if they are in quarantine, lest they let their status slip.
So we can guess that the Media Week participants are COVID-free for now. That includes GM James Jones, coach Monty Williams, and players Mikal Bridges (Tuesday), Jae Crowder (Tuesday), Chris Paul (Wed), Cameron Johnson (Wed), Devin Booker (scheduled for today) and Deandre Ayton (also scheduled for today) are healthy and cleared for training camp.
Watch out for who else does media interviews and/or who the Suns show working out as training camp begins and their social media feeds fill up with squeaky-sneaker action.
The Suns first preseason game is in 9 days, and first regular season game in 20 days.
Here’s the Monty and Mikal back-to-back from Tuesday.
Here is Chris Paul
And now Cameron Johnson.
Later today, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton are scheduled for Zoom appearances.