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2022 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v Dallas Mavericks

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‘Twins’ Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson reflect on disappointing end while looking to future with Suns

Both players are struggling with the Suns early demise, but love being in Phoenix and can’t wait for next season to start already.

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

There’s still no rational reason that the Phoenix Suns failed to show for their Game 7 in the second round of the playoffs last Sunday in front of a crowd that was so so ready to help carry them to victory.

I mean, they played so bad, even from the jump, that the fans had no chance to even provide any assistance. Dallas started the game up 5-0 on a pair of Doncic bombs and took leads of 10-3 and 21-10 that looked closer to 50-5 than the actual score.

“We were flat. We came out flat,” Suns General Manager James Jones said to media this week. “Offensively, we struggled, and they made shots. And I thought after that, it became a grind, an uphill battle to recapture some of our momentum, some of our flow, some of our confidence. And they continued to make shots.”

Among the very short list of players who agreed to talk to media after the awful game, the self-proclaimed ‘twins’ both came out to share their disappointment with a room full of shocked media looking for answers.

“I wish I had an answer for it, because then we could have addressed it, nipped it in the bud,” Suns forward Cameron Johnson said. “And then...I don’t even have much more to add to that. It is frustrating though, it is frustrating.”

“It hurts,” Mikal Bridges said simply.

“We didn’t step up to that challenge today,” Johnson said. “I can’t tell you guys enough how much I wish I could rewind the clock a couple hours.”

The Suns never once captured any kind of momentum. They followed up a putrid 17-point first quarter with an even putrid-er 10 point second quarter. TEN. One Zero. That’s how many points the Suns scored in the second quarter of Game 7. At home.

I’ve been very open this week to put nearly all the blame for this collapse on coach Monty Williams and the two All-Stars, Devin Booker and Chris Paul. Williams never changed his single-coverage/soft-hedge defensive plan on Luka Doncic despite six games of evidence that his team couldn’t execute that the plan to its intended outcome. They not only allowed Luka to rack up his numbers, but couldn’t help hedging so far off their defensive assignments Luka’s supporting cast still made almost HALF their three pointers for the series! Couple that with Booker and Paul failing to make a single shot before the Suns were down 40, and you’ve got a sad sad locker room.

But it also hurts that the Suns ultimately failed to put up enough resistance to Luka Doncic in their defensive schemes.

Luka routinely bodied Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson to the point that both looked more like bowling pins than defenders at times.

“There’s just so many areas where we could have, should have been better,” Suns forward Cameron Johnson said. “It leaves you regret, for sure, it leaves you with a lot of ‘What ifs?’ But you just got to take that.”

Bridges and Johnson, the self-dubbed ‘twins’, will need to take this experience and improve from it. They’ve got to be able to shut down the big wings better, since next year we’ll not only see Luka again, but also Kawhi Leonard will be back. And of course LeBron James.

For now, the twins are suffering from this loss — the biggest Game 7 loss at home in the NBA playoffs in more than half a century.

“It’s tough man, it’s tough,” Cameron Johnson said afterward. “Nobody wanted our season to end like that, nobody wanted to come out and have a performance like that.”

“It hurts,” a dejected Mikal Bridges said after the game. “I just think the biggest thing just personally is, I love everybody here, even you guys (the media). To not be able to see everybody every day, I think that’s always the toughest thing. It just sucks. I just love being around everybody every day man.”

The Suns won’t re-convene the entire team until training camp in the beginning of October.

The four and a half months is the longest break Mikal has had in three years, since the summer after his rookie season, and the longest Cameron Johnson has had since he joined the league.

Bridges, who led the league in minutes played this year, seemingly never gets tired and always wants to play even more minutes, looked decidedly worn down by the end of the Suns-Mavericks series.

All the Suns looked worn down. It’s possible that two months from now they will begin to realize the collective impact of playing more games than all but one other team (Bucks) since the pandemic started could maybe have hurt them in these playoffs. I AM NOT GIVING THEM EXCUSES, mind you. But facts are facts. I recall the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets were given ‘passes’ last year for being tired come playoff time after making it deep into the Bubble-offs and running right into the next season with little break.

For now, though, the Suns are left wondering what the heck happened not only in the Mavericks series, but before that.

“Even the last series (against the Pelicans),” Bridges admitted, when asked if he was worried they could lose. “You’re in the playoffs and everybody’s there for a reason. Nobody wants to go home, so you can’t walk into the gym, no matter if it’s one-eight like we just had and be easy, because they will win. That’s the thing — there’s always that, ‘Do I think we’re going to lose?’ But there’s chances if we play like we did tonight and this series, if we don’t do what we do, we lose. And that’s any team in the league — if you don’t play your way, you’re going to lose.”

The Suns definitely didn’t play their best in these playoffs. You could say it started weeks earlier, when injuries began to mount. Chris Paul and Cameron Johnson both missed a month after the All-Star break, forcing others to play even more minutes and messing with team rhythm.

Some of its matchups. Some is fatigue. Some is simply playing poorly at the worst possible time.

Bridges was a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year, but had a very tough series against the Mavericks. He got the primary defensive assignment on Luka Doncic the whole series, and frankly just got bullied. With the Suns leaving Doncic’s defender on an island, and the Mavericks exploiting that by spreading the floor as wide as possible for bully-drives, Doncic just wore down the much skinnier Bridges physically with drives into his body from 20 feet out to right at the rim.

To a man, the players did not blame the coach for his scheme decisions. They blamed themselves for not executing the scheme well. You saw in Game 1 of the West Finals, Golden State is single-covering Doncic too, similar to how the Suns did, but being much more aggressive on hedges and blitzes to disrupt his timing on physical drives into the defender. Also, while Andrew Wiggins is similar to Bridges in size and shape, he’s a bit stronger and more physically mature. That could make all the difference in the scheme.

The stars and coach failed the team on Sunday, but so did the role players. None of them stepped up when the opponent schemed to shut off Booker and Paul from managing the game well.

While the Mavericks supporting cast launched a gobton of threes and made nearly half of them, the Suns supporting cast fell way short. In Game 7, the non Book/Paul players shot 10-31 from the field (31%), including 3-10 on three pointers, with only 5 assists and 4 turnovers.

The Mavericks had all of Luka Doncic, Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie to put the ball down and go get a bucket, one on one. They all delivered. Outside of Booker and Paul, the Suns really didn’t have anyone who stepped up consistently to create their own shot.

Backup point guard Cameron Payne (28% shooting, 16% on threes) had already been benched along with backup center JaVale McGee primarily because they were being targeted mercilessly by Luka Doncic and Jalen Brunson whenever they got on the court.

Payne wasn’t just bad on defense. He was bad on offense too, missing almost every shot he took and not setting up others for good shots either.

That left out-front tertiary playmaking duties to Landry Shamet, Cameron Johnson and Mikal Bridges. None of them is a playmaker, and they proved it in this series.

Head coach Monty Williams tried to give those guys mid-season reps to develop their off-the-dribble game, but it did not translate that well to the playoffs.

“I’m asking myself over the course of the season, ‘Did I put those guys in enough positions so they can grow and do that?’,” Williams said, of developing those extra playmakers. “We thought that we did but when you look at this past series, maybe not. Were there opportunities for us to give (Suns forwards) Mikal (Bridges), Cam (Johnson) (and guard) Landry (Shamet) more opportunities to play in those 1-on-1 environments? Because in the playoffs, everybody knows your plays. You throw the ball around two three, four times, one guy gets it, and he goes and gets a bucket. And I learned that lesson from (Nets forward) Kevin Durant after the Finals last year. He was like, ‘Coach, look. The playoffs, when you get deep into it,’ he said, ‘You got to stop a guy from getting a bucket, and you got to go get a bucket.’ And a lot of the teams have guys that can do that. And I ask myself, ‘Am I preparing our guys to do that?’ I think we have guys that can. Mikal, Cam Johnson, what I saw from Landry in the postseason to complement what we have in Book and Chris.”

It’s interesting that Monty focused on the young wings here — Bridges, Johnson and Shamet — while ignoring his stable of backup point guards and his other supporting starters, Jae Crowder and Deandre Ayton.

Crowder, now in the late stages of his career, took on some shot-creating this year, adding a floater back to his game, but he’s got few ball skills and cannot be counted on to create his own shot.

Ayton is an obvious omission from Monty’s comments, but he was probably focusing on guys who can start with the ball behind the three-point line, get downhill and create from there. The only centers in the league who can do that are MVP Finalists (Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic).

Payne, Holiday and Elfrid Payton were omissions likely because they wouldn’t be on the floor at the same time as Book and Paul, which was the context of Monty’s quotes.

Johnson and Bridges just want another crack at it, and will spend the summer working on their games.

They made sure to express their love of the team, the city and the friends they’ve made here in Phoenix.

“You just have to be aware of the entirety of the situation,” Cameron Johnson said. “I feel very grateful to be in this city, playing on this team. A team that accomplished a lot in the regular season. The people that we have in our program, the people that we have on our team, they all mean a lot to me individually. And it was something where, a situation I walk into work every day happy and excited, excited to be around our coaches, our teammates, our staff. And you can’t take that away. The pain of this doesn’t take that away. All of us have a lot of friends in this league and from everything that I’ve gathered, we have a very good group. A very fun group to play with and a great group that fights together. And I’m not going to let one game strip that from this year’s experience.”

“That was our main goal is to be the last team standing,” Mikal said. “But also, just take for granted about the whole year. Even as humans and everybody else thinks it’s a bad year because we didn’t make it to the Finals, which is fine. But still had a hell of a year, just a lot of things happened this year. I wouldn’t trade this year for nothing. Things happen in life, it happens. I got closer with people, I met new friends, all that on this team in this facility, in this workplace, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

We have a long break ahead of us this summer, and likely at least one-third of the Phoenix Suns roster will be different by mid-July. That’s the way it goes every year for every NBA team. Half the league will be free agents on July 1.

“The season, the way it ended, was disappointing but the season was not a disappointment,” General Manager James Jones said this week. “I’m not going to change my approach to team-building, which is to create and construct a team that has a ton of depth, a ton of skill and great chemistry. We just need to be a better, and I think after a summer where our guys improve, we will be.”

For the Suns, only nine players are under contract for the next season at this point, and at least four of those will be mentioned heavily in trade discussions (Dario Saric, Torrey Craig, Cameron Payne, Landry Shamet and maybe even Jae Crowder).

Why? Because they all make $5-10 million per year, which is perfect for trades. Add in sign-and-trade opportunities with restricted free agents Deandre Ayton and Aaron Holiday, and yeah you can expect an endless supply of rosterbation for the next two months.

But I can tell you right now: the ‘twins’ Mikal and CamJ will be in Suns uniforms in October unless it brings back an MVP candidate and their inclusion is the only thing that gets it done. Yes, I’d trade one or both of them for Kevin Durant, for example.

Johnson is one of those under contract for next season already, at $5.9 million in the 4th year of his rookie contract. He will be eligible for an extension this summer starting a year from now, just like Bridges and Ayton were a year ago. The Suns extended Bridges (4 years, $90 million) but declined to extend Ayton, who wanted almost twice that.

This summer, the big Suns contract decisions are Ayton (restricted), Johnson (extension-eligible, starting a year later) and even Devin Booker (extension-eligible, starting two years later).

“Those guys, they deserve the credit, they deserve the accolades and financial rewards that come with being good players and productive players,” Jones said of those pending decisions.

The Suns could cross into luxury tax land this summer, as they are already just $19 million short of the tax line with just nine players under contract so far. That includes only six trusted rotation players, four of them starters, from the Suns-Mavs series.

“It doesn’t preclude us from doing anything,” Jones said of likely crossing the tax line. “We’re not talking about luxury tax issues or avoiding those things. That’s not something that’s going to prevent us from continuing to build this team and keep this team together.”

Stay tuned for more details on the salary cap and possible implications on crossing the luxury tax threshold, coming early next week.

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