The Phoenix Suns beat the Toronto Raptors on Monday night, 114-106, in a game and at once felt encouraging and frustrating.
Encouraging in the sense that Mikal Bridges (29 points, 6 assists) might want to change his name to Mikal Booker the way he’s opening and closing games these days. Chris Paul chipped in 19 points and 9 assists despite being hounded all night by 6’9” defenders, and Deandre Ayton had a very effective 22 points and 13 rebounds.
But it was also frustrating because the team looks so much like the juggernaut Suns but... not good enough to blow out beatable teams yet. They are still missing some important players, namely a league MVP candidate in Devin Booker.
Mikal Bridges started the fun with an explosive first quarter, scoring 16 of the Suns first 21 points (6-8 shooting, 3-3 on 3s), reminiscent of injured teammate Devin Booker who knew that getting out to an early lead is a great recipe for success.
“Oh, I felt it. I felt it. I felt it for sure,” Bridges said of the energy in the building. “The crowd had me all gassed up. The crowd and the bench, I felt it from both of them.”
The Suns had a nine point lead at halftime, but then gave up a frantic 12-0 run in the first three minutes of the third quarter to find themselves down 65-62 before they knew what hit them.
“Start of the third quarter, they were just coming at us in transition,” Monty Williams said of the Raptors running hard on Suns misses. “Cam had some open looks, he missed them, but they were taking off and DA is at the rim (under the Suns basket), we’re flat, they’re going to be in transition.”
After being a disappointment in recent games, this time the Suns second unit — led by Dario Saric, Jock Landale, Ish Wainright, Damion Lee and Saben Lee — did their jobs very well.
“When we put the other group in, we just made a really good effort to stay in front of those guys as best we could,” Williams said. “That defense carried over into the fourth quarter and we held them to 22 points.”
This is a great redemption for that second unit, who Monty blasted last home game vs. the Mavericks for not following the game plan or coming with energy. They did both in this one, and outscored the Raps by 6 in their quarter-bridging minutes.
The Suns found the games within one point in the final minutes. Scottie Barnes made a layup with 3:20 to go to give the Raptors a 100-99 lead.
But then Mikal Bridges took over. He made a pair of 16-foot pullups off DA assists to give the Suns a 103-100 lead, and the Suns never trailed again. They outscored the Raptors 15-4 down the stretch.
“You’re watching Mikal in those moments come through,” Williams said. “And I think the guys are feeding him a lot of confidence, but he has his own confidence because he’s putting the work in and he’s not worried about the consequences of missing his shot.”
That’s two games in a row that Bridges has iced in the final minutes, acting like he’s been THIS guy his whole career.
Bridges has truly filled in for the shots and spots that Devin Booker has always owned, so much so that Ayton, who assisted both of Bridges pullups in crunch, said as much to Book.
Ayton after the game: “I told Book (Devin Booker), ‘You know what’s crazy? These are your plays though. This is what Mikal plays now.’ Every time we do a play at the elbow, we call it the ‘Mikal-bow’.”
For Mikal, who suffered along with the rest of us when the Suns went 5-17 during a stretch where almost everyone he’s used to playing with was hurt, this stretch is very rewarding. And not for himself, but for the bottom line.
“Just trying to win, man, that is the biggest thing,” Mikal Bridges says. “Doing whatever it takes, being aggressive is one of the things.”
Bridges now has a career-long streak of 9 consecutive games scoring 15+ points. That may not seem like much on the surface, but for Mikal Bridges that’s real progress. He usually is content to disappear in the offense when others can score. Now, he’s taking it upon himself.
“I am just trying to keep going and see where it takes me honestly,” Bridges said.
Booker will be back in the Suns lineup FINALLY at some point in the next week, and now the Suns have two guys on top of Chris Paul who take and make important shots in the clutch.
The Suns have won 6 of their last 7 game and are now 27-25, in a three-way tie for 5th in the West and just a half-game back of 4th place. While that bounce-back in impressive, especially considering Booker is still sidelined, the Suns record is a far cry from the 52-game mark of the last two seasons.
“Everybody is making plays, man,” Bridges said of the whole team. “Everybody was locked in. Told you we got a lot of making up to do.”