It’s playoff time, Phoenix Suns fans! I’m so glad to be taking this ride with you all for a second year in a row. This is the first of what I hope will be several pieces previewing a single key matchup in each series the Suns play. This isn’t meant to say that this is the ONLY matchup that matters, of course, nor that the outcome of this matchup will be 100% predictive of the series outcome. But they will be one matchup, sometimes two-way and sometimes just one, that likely will matter in the overall outcome.
The Matchup: Mikal Bridges’ defense against Brandon Ingram
Why it matters:
Simply put: the New Orleans Pelicans rely an awful lot on Brandon Ingram to put points on the board. The 6th year former #2 pick only played in 55 games this season, averaging close to 23 points per game on 55% true shooting, which represented a dip in his efficiency from the prior two seasons.
Despite struggling a bit from downtown this year (33% vs. his 36% career average), Ingram is a true three-level scorer with good finishing ability and an effective midrange game. He isn’t lightning quick and is quite slender for his 6’8 frame, but he’s a good dribbler with very long arms and if he gets even a half step on his defender he can often finish at the basket with a finger roll. This highlight reel from the Pelicans’ play-in tourney victory over the Los Angeles Clippers provides a good look at what Ingram brings to the table.
The numbers are pretty striking. The Pelicans, just 36-46 in the regular season, were actually a winning team with Ingram playing, going 29-26. Ingram averaged 25 points on better than 60% TS in those 29 wins, and 20 points on a ghastly sub-50% TS in those 26 defeats. By comparison, Devin Booker’s output in losses this season dropped by only a point per game and about 6% TS, so you can be sure that Ingram having a good night is a very important thing for the team from The Big Easy.
The Suns, meanwhile, rely on Mikal Bridges to defend players like Ingram. Bridges made a strong case for himself as the league’s premier wing defender this season, and his combination of long arms, good technique, deceptive strength, sharp instincts, and toughness allow him to be a substantial obstacle to all but the league’s most physically dominant scorers.
It should be noted that C.J. McCollum has emerged as the Pelicans’ top scorer since New Orleans acquired him in a trade with the Portland Trailblazers Feb. 8. But McCollum’s size and style of play make him, in my mind, more easily defendable by Suns other than Bridges.
The past matchups:
Bridges was heavily responsible for Ingram both times they faced off this season (Ingram missed two of the four contests). According to NBA shot tracking stats, Ingram shot 8/16 with Bridges as his primary defender this season, scoring 18 points. You can check out clips of every one of the shot attempts from the Feb. 25 game here.
A common theme is that Ingram has success against Bridges when he uses a lot of off-ball movement to keep Mikal chasing him, and then quickly attacks the basket when he gets the pass from a teammate. When Bridges has time to establish a defensive posture, he more often is able to force Ingram into a more difficult fadaway jumper.
Ingram has not in the past been able to bully Bridges, who has a more solid fram despite being the shorter player. But he has been able to get quality looks against Mikal, which is a hallmark of high-level NBA scorers: shutting them down entirely is almost impossible.
The bottom line:
Ingram has been playing well of late. He dropped 27 points on 11/19 shooting in just 29 minutes in the play-in tourney game against the San Antonio Spurs last week, and followed that up 30 points on 14/21 shooting to slay the Clippers and set up this series against the Suns. So it’s safe to say he’s feeling good.
Bridges is an elite defender with all the ability to make life hard for Ingram, but he will need to rely on the Suns’ strong team defense as the Pelicans will undoubtedly continue to keep Ingram moving off-ball and utilize a lot of screens to get him space to operate.
Many other factors will determine how this series ultimately plays out, but my prediction is that when he last horn sounds on this one, the Suns will be moving to the next round and Mikal Bridges will have done his job just fine.