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Why Monday’s 16-point first quarter means everything for Mikal Bridges and the Suns

The Suns wing could be morphing from a defensive specialist into an offensive dynamo (without losing the defense)

Toronto Raptors v Phoenix Suns Photo by Kate Frese/NBAE via Getty Images

Phoenix Suns wing Mikal Bridges is off to quite the start to his 2023. New year new him? Let’s see what we can glean from 12 minutes of unadulterated fun.

In the month of January (Suns were 7-8 over 15 contests, including 6-1 in their last seven), Bridges averaged 19.3 points (47/40/90 shooting), 4.0 rebounds, 4.9 assists (1.6 turnovers), and 1.4 steals in 37.4 minutes per game. He’s building on a career-best streak of nine games with at least 15 points, averaging 23.0 points on 50/44/92 shooting during that stretch.

Admittedly, I started to question the ceiling of Bridges this season, just feeling less faith in him becoming a dynamic offensive weapon. For much of this season, high-scoring outputs even by his standards were rarities — just eight games of 20+ over the first 41 games while in the 11 games since then, Bridges has rattled off eight more.

The most recent game — an eight-point win over the Toronto Raptors, who the Suns may dance with this trade deadline — was one of the most impressive from Bridges as he exploded for a monster first quarter, finishing with 16 points (6-8 FG, 3-3 3P), one rebound, two assists, three steals, and one blocked shot in the frame.

Bridges played all 12 minutes of the first quarter for the second time this season (Jan. 2 @ New York Knicks), but it wasn’t too different of an opening stint from what he’s used to. Bridges averages 9.9 minutes each first quarter, second only to Devin Booker’s 11.4 minutes.

And if you’ve paid any attention to Bridges and his offensive flashes especially in the last two or three weeks, you’ve seen the similarities to Booker. It’s almost hard to not see when he drives toward the baseline and pulls up for cash or when he manipulates a defense for a kickout.

Here’s my favorite example of Bridges morphing into Booker during an amazing quarter of shotmaking — one where he uses a high screen from Deandre Ayton to get the inside track on Fred VanVleet, getting downhill before using that slow and low dribble that Booker so often uses to get to his “Mikal-bow” pull-up.

The shotmaking was an outlier above all outliers, which makes the following performances from Bridges that much more important. For context:

  • 6-8 FG are season-highs for both makes and attempts in a first quarter, while the attempts were matched twice earlier in the season.
  • 3-3 3P also ties a season-high for three-point makes in a first quarter (3-6 3P, Dec. 12 vs Houston Rockets) while the three attempts has only been done in five other first quarters, including each of the last two.

The Booker parallels overlapped into the passing as well as Bridges is averaging 4.9 assists this month in Booker’s absence to just 1.6 turnovers (3.1 A/TO); before the New Year, those numbers sat at 3.0 assists and 1.3 turnovers (2.3 A/TO). It’s always a positive sign when the ratio increases as the volume increases too.

The ball handling has come a long way for Bridges, and it’s on possessions like this where that really works against a defense. Toronto must’ve been certain that sending help in the form of Precious Achiuwa, who never tags the roller in Ayton, would be enough to force a turnover or kickout. Toronto must’ve been unaware that Bridges is always growing, able to find the untagged Ayton at the rim:

Now I’m not going to sit here, look you face to face — or screen to face — and tell you that Mikal Bridges is going to become Devin Booker. It’s just not going to happen.

But at this point, there’s an interesting battle going on between the two — whether they know it or not — determining which can gain more ground on the other’s specialty: Booker’s growing defensive prowess and the budding offensive capacity of Bridges.

It’s not about just how the next week goes and whether the streak continues. It’s not about February, March, or even April and into the summer. It’s about the totality of those performances and how he carries this momentum into the off-season because now there’s a real, tangible launching pad for Bridges to become a great offensive threat.

And if I’m being honest, it gives me a lot of comfort knowing that even if this is the final offensive step he takes — which I highly doubt at this point — he’s still one of the best 3-and-D-plus wings in all of basketball. After all, Bridges only took a few minutes to nab three steals in the first quarter, which is also a season-high. Here’s how he turned those opportunities into points:

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