There’s no two ways about it. Phoenix Suns Hall-of-Fame-to-be point guard Chris Paul was washed at the end of last season. Beat up. Targeted. Tired.
Injuries had provided a period of rest for the aging Paul during the regular season, but the intensity of the postseason, coupled by the opposition‘s game plan to attack him consistently, ultimately led to his and the Phoenix Suns demise against the Dallas Mavericks. He enters the 2022-23 season at 37 years of age, and the time has come to lessen the load.
Monty Williams, who stated that summer was, “longer than I wanted,” is aware of the need to creatively initiate the offense as he prepares for the new season. Phoenix will have to utilize their young and talented core in an effort to take the load off of CP3. The expectation is that it will optimize his efficiency in the long run, allowing the Suns to finally win the championship that has eluded them.
Monty is hoping that Cameron Johnson and Mikal Bridges take on more of the facilitator role this season. “Those guys have the ability to facilitate, and I just haven’t given them the chance,” Monty stated on Thursday after practice.
Williams echoed that sentiment in the post game following their loss to the 36ers, stating, “When Cam (Payne) and Mikal (Bridges) are initiating offense, we have to grow that. That takes a lot of pressure off of Chris (Paul) to handle the ball. He had some catch and shoot situations tonight and I think we will be able to grow that environment. It is not just Cam (Johnson) or Mikal (Bridges), Landry (Shamet) has to get used to it.”
In the first preseason game against the NBL‘s Adelaide 36ers, we saw our first preview of what this could look like for Phoenix.
Sure, it’s just preseason. But now is the time to begin trying new things and experimenting with the offensive sets. In turn, it will build the confidence of the team so when the show begins, they are ready and willing to take the reins.
Mikal Bridges was extremely engaged on the offensive side of the ball during their preseason game against the pesky 36ers. He attacked the cylinder with regularity, doing so off the dribble, and displayed the athleticism and willingness to do so.
Mikal looks ready to take on the added responsibility. We witnessed his two-way game early in the game as he stole the ball and, rather than dishing the ball to Paul to facilitate the fast break, took control of the possession with confidence. He finished with touch around the rim.
Bridges shot 36.9% from beyond the arc last season, and was only 27.3% when the defender was playing “tight” coverage (within two to four feet). It’s clear that he has spent time in the workshop attempting to perfect his three-point shot, embracing the definition of a “three-and-D” wing player.
There was little hesitation when taking three-pointers on Sunday night. Even with a defender close by, rather than being passive, he squared his shoulders and knocked down the contested three-pointer.
Here we once again see the cerebral approach that Mikal possesses, combined with his athleticism. Deandre Ayton — who also looked great in this game — screens for Cam Johnson then sets a high pick for Chris Paul. Paul see the defenders attempting to jump the screen and provides the pass to Ayton as he darts to the paint.
The 36ers, who at this point had given up 10 points to DA, attack the rolling center in an effort to disrupt his shot. Enter Bridges. He astutely rolls to the rim, catching an easy pass from Ayton for the dunk.
In short, Mikal looked fantastic. In 22 minutes played, Bridges went 8-of-12 from the field, including 3-of-4 from beyond the arc, and scored 22 points (the same amount as his fellow 2018 NBA Draftee Deandre Ayton). He added 7 rebounds and one assist.
What is important here is it shows that Mikal Bridges is taking the next step as an NBA player. We’ve heard from Monty how impressed he is with the growth of his players during the offseason. “ I think the improvement of guys that were already good is going to be something that we can hold on to and get excited about,” Williams said on Suns Media Day.
“It felt good,” Bridges said following their preseason game on Sunday. “The key is for guys like Cam (Johnson) and I to be available to help (Devin) Booker and Chris (Paul) handle the ball and relieve pressure. I think that’s the next step for our team and personally, myself, Cam and everyone else.”
Bridges already possesses an elite defensive skill set. His offense would definitely be a welcomed addition for Phoenix. Too often last season, most notably in the postseason, Devin Booker was on a scoring island without any consistent assistance around him.
Could Mikal’s performance against Adelaide be a sign of things to come? Could he have level upped this past offseason? Scottie Pippen, Jr.? Maybe not yet. But hopefully he’s on that path.