PHOENIX — When he was traded by the Philadelphia 76ers to the Phoenix Suns in the 2018 NBA Draft, Mikal Bridges was viewed as a prototypical ‘3-and-D’ player, one who could generate stops on one end and make teams pay with 3-pointers in transition or off another pass.
So far, that has been true. Bridges shot 42.3 percent from 3-point range during the regular season — the best of his three-year career — and finished with his best total in defensive win shares (2.6) and second-best mark in defensive box score plus/minus (0.8). But the Suns maintain that Bridges is much more than that, a player who can open things with his cutting and playmaking in addition to his known strengths.
That was on full display during the Suns’ 118-108 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2 of the NBA Finals at Phoenix Suns Arena on Thursday night. Bridges finished with a playoff career-high of 27 points on 8-of-15 shooting despite just a 3-of-9 mark from 3-point range with seven rebounds. His impact was crucial to Phoenix limiting Bucks All-Star forward Khris Middleton to 11 points on 5-of-16 shooting, and he aided the Suns’ transition efforts throughout the night.
“He recognized once he started making shots and they ran him off the line, he was getting to his spot,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “Sometimes, he would get close to the basket but he would get to a spot where he can make that seven-, eight-foot jump shot. He’s been doing that all year, it’s just that everybody’s seeing it now.”
Bridges had 14 of his points after halftime, including a 10-point fourth quarter in which he made all eight of his free throw attempts. The Suns shot 12-of-14 from the free-throw line as a team and 20-of-40 from 3-point range.
After his performance, here’s what Bridges told the media in a dual press conference with Suns starting shooting guard Devin Booker.
On how he assesses the Suns being up 2-0 in the series:
“Got to treat it like it’s Game 1. We talk about it in the locker room and our next game is the most important game. That’s in the regular season, that’s in the playoffs, the Finals no matter what, our next game is our most important game. So just stay locked in and we know we did what we were supposed to do here, and it’s not over and we got to just got to continue doing what we’re doing and keep playing our way.”
On Booker’s 31-point performance, which included 21 points in the second half:
“Man, just coming up huge, especially in that fourth, I told him that after the game. Just timely shots, they come in, go to the free-throw line or hit a couple threes, they’re making a little run. Every time Book hit a three or do something, you could just tell it just melted them down. Like, ‘Dang, we was right there.’ And I’m just like, I’m amazed too. I’m running in there trying to crash, maybe get an [offensive] board. It’s going in every single time. So, I’m just, hey, I’m just running at this point. So, it’s just unbelievable and he’s just — this is what he does and he doesn’t shy away from it.”
On attacking closeouts off the bounce:
“Yeah, I just — it started in college, when I came off the bench (at Villanova) on our championship team (in 2016), I wasn’t shooting the ball that well and I had to figure out ways to score, and it was cutting and driving it. So, once I went to my last year of college, and I was shooting it really well, it was just a mix of everything. Sometimes I get so focused on wanting to hit that three, if I haven’t touched it in a while and I just want to get one up, I think it’s always, ‘Let me hit this three and get myself going.’ I have my teammates and I’ll give (Suns backup guard) E’Twaun [Moore] a shoutout, he’s the one that talks to me. I know especially in that (Los Angeles) Clippers series (in the Western Conference Finals) when I wasn’t getting it going, and he was just like, ‘Mix it up, try and get to the rim.’ And I’m like, ‘Damn, that’s what I was doing and I just forgot.’ I was trying to just hit a three. And once I started doing that, it just opens up my game just playing off my jump shot and getting into the paint and trying to have everything, for sure.”
On looking to the Bucks bench after making some of his shots:
“It’s just fun. It’s just here, you’re right in the corner, hit a couple corner threes right in front of their bench, and they just, playing basketball, trying to make me miss and I just, for the fun of it, and just talking a little bit. But it’s all friendly, all love, just having fun out there.”