Despite the losses, this weekend’s back to back against Denver illustrated how much Mikal Bridges means to these Suns.
The slate began with Bridges, the team’s second-leading scorer, making his first five triples of the game. Bridges was on the receiving end of many of Chris Paul’s 14 first-half assists. That offensive outburst gave the Suns a 14-point lead at the half.
The Nuggets went on to win in overtime when just about every guard on the roster got into rhythm driving downhill and scoring in the paint, but Bridges finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in nearly 41 minutes of action. The highly competitive Bridges was reserved postgame, unwilling to talk through his own big game in a tough loss.
But though that double-double came in a loss, Saturday night showed all that needed to be shown about Bridges’ value in Phoenix. With Devin Booker sidelined with a left hamstring strain, it was clear when the Suns took the court that Bridges would need to step up on offense to help replace Booker’s output. Rather than fill it up as a scorer, though, Bridges was hardly on the floor most of the second half in foul trouble.
“It’s part of the growing pains,” head coach Monty Williams said postgame.
In five of the Suns’ 15 games this season, Bridges has picked up three or more fouls, and while the whistle can sometimes come a little more quickly for him because he is so long and hard to officiate, it clearly hurts the team when he picks up early fouls.
Not only did Bridges start Friday’s game 0-2 from the field with no points in the first quarter, he picked up two fouls in the final couple minutes of the second. Then, about nine seconds into the second half, Bridges picked up his third foul.
Monty Williams talked postgame about Mikal Bridges needing to know when it's worth it to be aggressive as a defender. This was Bridges' third foul on the opening possession of the second half.— Brendon Kleen (@BrendonKleen14) January 24, 2021
Probably not worth it... pic.twitter.com/dPhrM0sZwB
Bridges hit the bench, forcing the Suns to over-extend Jevon Carter and Abdel Nader, and leaving the team without enough on the floor. The second quarter was an ugly 16-15 slog.
“I’ve talked to him about (how) there’s a game that we’re playing in but there’s also a game within the game,” Williams said, “and when you’re trying to become an elite defender, you have to know when to be aggressive and when you’ve already picked up one or two and you have to back off.”
The understated ripple effect of Bridges leaving the floor is that his primary assignment still has to be guarded. Nobody else on this Suns team is a great matchup with Murray, who is big and can shoot from anywhere.
“It hasn’t plagued him, but it’s happened a few times where he’s picking up an early foul,” Williams said. “He’s not guarding second-level guys. He’s guarding the elite of the league every night, and those guys see the best defenders.”
While Murray didn’t score much in the second half, it opens things up when a team’s best perimeter player is comfortable. And when Bridges does get back in the game on nights like this, he does so when his primary matchup is on the bench.
Or in this case, he skips his regular place in the rotation. Bridges didn’t return to the game until the 7-minute mark of the fourth. Predictably, when Bridges returned, he was effective, scoring 11 points from that point until the end of the second overtime.
It was enough to beg the question of what could have been if Bridges had stayed on the floor in the normal rotation all night. Maybe a performance even bigger than Friday’s.
“He’s learning, and we’ve talked about it a ton,” Williams said.
The difference between being a role player in the NBA and being a core part of your team is that core pieces can’t afford to not bring it. If they don’t, their team is pretty likely to lose.
Coming off the bench to start last season, Bridges could afford to spend fouls more frivolously, knowing the team had other options and he might not even close the game. In a starting role as a primary scoring and defensive option, the Suns need every minute Bridges gives them.
During his three-point bonanza on Friday, the value Bridges brought to the floor was obvious. It was just as obvious during his foul-induced absence on Saturday.