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Stephen’s Study: Bridges continues to shine against a raucous Raptors bunch

Suns see Bridges’ evolution continue in an all-impressive win

NBA: Boston Celtics at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns would piece together an impressive 114-106 win over the Toronto Raptors on Monday, and do so in a fashion that continues to suggest they’re turning that proverbial corner, as the contender potential they have resurfaces.

1.) Mikal Bridges… That’s It

No need to bury the lead here, Mikal Bridges has been operating in a state of flow that he hadn’t seen, in any stretch prior, to this magnitude.

His continued reps operating as a “fire starter” within the Suns offensive attack continues to not only be impressive but reign extremely impactful upon the team's overall operation.

The Suns have had one of the best offenses over this stretch since they brought Chris Paul in. His first season it was largely due to elite displays of scoring and playmaking from Booker and Paul, with ancillary efforts from Bridges, Ayton, and Johnson.

Year two saw the latter three begin to “earn their keep” more in operating independently of the former two.

Year three is now seeing an emphasis on the evolution of those three, with expectations and a goal of evolving the attack enough to benefit the team's general operation come playoffs, in response to the shortcomings that led to their premature exit in the 2022 playoffs.

Ayton and Johnson are coming along, but it’s Bridges who has put his foot on the gas regarding moving in alignment with the desired evolution of those three.

Bridges has had Paul elect to defer to him in clutch moments over the last two games - not unlike he does at times with Booker - and has executed in doing so both times.

He’s also taken over as a play initiator, doing so under full-court ball pressure, and has done a wonderful job getting the team into their offense in a timely manner, while also operating as an advantage setter for others to play off of.

All the while continuing to blend the skills and methods of operation that he grew elite at in with his new evolutions.

This is making him that much more valuable to the team.

His 16-point first quarter set the tone for the Suns, and, generally, the variety of ways he scored - starting in transition which is the entity of scoring I’ve hoped to see resurface for him - has suggested there shouldn’t be much issue reingratiating himself within his most optimal role on the team once they’re back healthy.

Under pressure from Van Vleet, Barnes, and the general scheme variance from Nick Nurse, he prevailed as a constant pressure point at pivotal moments.

His handle is evolved to being more tight and shifty, his pace has transitioned from frenetic to mature, the weight he’s put on has allowed him to not be bumped off his spots and allowed him to both invite and absorb contact while remaining balanced, and his processing of coverages plus how he can maneuver to his spots has surfaced.

Underrated continues to be his ability as a playmaker, especially in feeding Ayton, which was a point of emphasis I highlighted even amidst the riggers that late November and December presented to the team's successes.

He’s operating in the perfect space, with each entity of his game blending together with his evolution, at the perfect time.

2.) Process vs Switching

The Suns have often had a method of intentionally involving Ayton in the offense early, to keep him engaged for the duration of the game on both ends of the floor.

At times, it tails off drastically over the course of games, and context can be applied to his descending field goal attempt totals per quarter this season.

First quarter 4.5, second quarter 3.3, third quarter 3.8, fourth quarter 2.8.

What is consistent, however, is the manner in which they seek him out in the half-court against switching schemes.

The objective of a switching scheme is to flatten out the offensive attack, walling off the paint as well as keeping play more perimeter-oriented.

Offenses can counter with clever maneuvering via off-script slips and ghost screens - testing the mesh points and whether the switches are aggressive or soft - or stretch the defense with passing to generate rotations and playing within that presented advantage.

What Ayton poses as a threat most with, is his presence in the paint, whether it’s via natural pick-and-roll, those pick-and-roll-adjacent plays I continue to emphasize - off-ball screens and/or DHO scenarios that serve as 2v1 advantage setters, the actions Booker and Bridges are best in - or off natural post ups either on the block or at the top of the restricted area, where he’s best.

That paint presence undoes a switching scheme, especially if said pressure point is able to pass well to keep an advantage with a rotation defense. It is also aided particularly by the Suns, with them having multiple players able to deliver the ball to him in multiple contexts.

The Raptors went with a steady diet of switching, in tandem with giving extra attention to Paul, Bridges, and Ayton, in varying scenarios.

Ayton was key in this one, past what his 22 points, 13 rebounds, two assists, and boxscore +1 suggest.

I’ve maintained that he’s one of the best screeners in the NBA, on and off-ball, when he’s engaged, and rolling off of either scenario tugs at the taggers or helper's responsibilities, which naturally undoes a defense as it free’s up shooters on the Suns via his gravity.

The manner in which he operated against Toronto is not unlike how he did against the Brooklyn Nets recently, another switch-heavy team.

He was locked in, and again, pat numbers, the general feel of his game and operating was much more optimal.

Tip of the cap:

· Chris Paul (19 points, 9 assists, 4 rebounds): The “Point God” continues to impress since returning from injury. In five games, he’s up to 21.6 PPG on 54.1/46.7/100 shooting. That’s in addition to 10.4 APG as well as a block and steal per game. He’s also at 18.5 PPG and shooting 52.5/51.8/92.9 in his last 11 games played

· Ish Wainright (7 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals): “StrongMan” continues to be used in a “plug and play” manner, and flourishes as a “little things” guy that plays with physicality and provides ancillary grit.

Up Next: The 25-26 Atlanta Hawks come through The Footprint Center tonight for a bout in The Valley.

Over the last two weeks, they’re 3-4. They also combine the second-best offense (125.2) with the 29th-ranked defense (125.8) in this window.

Trae Young (who missed their game Monday in Portland) is listed as probable.

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