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Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson reflect on Suns tenure before first game back in Phoenix

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
December 13, 2023
Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson are prepared for an emotional return to face the Phoenix Suns for the first time.

Wednesday night’s game represents a miniature moment of closure for the Phoenix Suns and Brooklyn Nets. With Kevin Durant set to return to the lineup, the debut of the Suns’ Big 3 will finally be realized, 24 games into the season. However, the matchup also features a reunion with Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, two fan favorites who will be playing in Phoenix for the first time since February’s blockbuster trade.

Wednesday morning, the Twins took to the main court at the Footprint Center for shootaround, and the emotions were already starting to surface.

“When we first walked on the court, it didn’t hit me too hard on that one,” Bridges said. “I was kind of chilling, but towards the end of it, shooting on the court, being on the court again, and then kind of going in the locker room, I walked in and I was like, ‘Okay, this is what it feels like to be in the opposing locker room.’ So I think tonight, when I walk in at night, that’s when I’m gonna know.”

The Twins haven’t had much time to reflect on their Suns tenure or reminisce about the happy times from their trip to the 2021 NBA Finals or the 64-win season that followed. But both Bridges and Johnson take a considerable amount of pride in helping turn the organization around from the NBA’s worst record to its best in a span of three seasons.

“It’s something that I’ll definitely have pride in and continue to have pride in, just being a part of something special,” Johnson said. “I think that’s all we want in sports is to be a part of something that’s bigger than ourselves. It puts a lot of things in perspective. You’ve got your team, your organization, the city — that goes all beyond the personal accolades and accomplishments and extends it far beyond that.”

Going from a title-contending team to a playoff-hopeful squad in Brooklyn came with its share of challenges. Aside from taking a step up in the pecking order on the court, picking up his life and shipping off to a different coast was a major adjustment for Bridges. He had to learn what things from his time in Phoenix he needed to take with him and what he could leave behind, navigating between tools that helped him find success without being too particular about doing everything the same way the Suns did.

“When you go somewhere else and then it’s a little bit different, you kind of get a little defensive and be like, ‘Well, I used to do this here, I used to do that,’ and you kind of gotta let that go a little bit,” Bridges explained. “But bring what you’ve learned where I came from and try help and bring it here, besides just trying to bring everything. That was a little battle I had, and having Cam there just to go through it together and the whole process of being traded, it was dope.”

The appreciation for his fellow Twin is mutual for Johnson, who was grateful to have a familiar face that he could lean on during that difficult adjustment period.

“Emotionally, mentally, it can throw you for a loop,” Johnson said. “It changes your whole entire life. One day I’m wearing a Suns jersey, two days later I’m playing a game in a Brooklyn jersey. And sometimes that can be a little difficult. But if you have the right people around you, obviously doing the trade with Mikal, somebody that I know, I’m stepping on the court, I look to the side of me, he’s right there just like every game that I’ve played.”

The Nets are currently 12-10 in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and although neither planned on leaving Phoenix, the Twins are happy in their current situation. Coming up on a full year removed from the trade, they’re able to see how special their last few seasons in the Valley really were.

“It was a great culture we had here,” Bridges said. “It was fun, and you can’t take it for granted. Going to the Finals ain’t easy. So you kind of realize that it’s tough to get back, and it just feels like it’s just a little more pressure to get there. But it’s not normal to be so close like that as a team, especially in the NBA. It’s really special, and that’s stuff I take with me when I left.”

As a rookie, Mikal Bridges was part of a 19-win Suns team that finished dead last in the NBA. The following year, Cam Johnson joined the mix, and the team progressed to 34 wins — eight of which took place during the franchise-altering NBA bubble run. One year after that, they won 51 games in a 72-game season and reached the Finals.

Johnson says he can remember damn near every play of every game he’s ever played in, but that 2-0 start to the Finals was the peak of his career in Phoenix.

“You go back to that time, we were really on a high,” Johnson said. “It didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but if you capture that moment in time, it’s pretty cool the way the city just loved it, cared for us, enjoyed the process with us.”

The Suns would go on to lose the next four games of the series and fall short of the franchise’s first championship, but Bridges had established himself as a young cornerstone for the franchise and Johnson had emerged as another tantalizing wing prospect for the long haul. Riding that wave of revenge and continuity, the Suns stormed their way to a franchise-record 64-win season, capping off one of the most improbably quick turnarounds in NBA history.

Between the on-court success and the off-court camaraderie, the Twins were central figures in making those Suns teams so likable and endearing them to the fanbase.

“I think a big part of that mutual love is the fact that we were able to sort of in a way grow something together, where it had been a couple of down years and we were able to just put a group together and turn it around a little bit,” Johnson said, getting choked up. “And that love is very mutual. I love the fans here, and when I’m back in town, they treat me as if I never left. And that’s something that you just can’t take for granted, ’cause nobody can really take that away from you.”

That mutual affinity will likely be on display Wednesday night when the Twins are announced and receive their tribute videos in front of the Suns crowd. Unlike the more mixed response to Deandre Ayton’s homecoming or the Scott Foster-riddled debacle that was Chris Paul’s return to Phoenix, Wednesday night’s reunion will most likely be devoid of any real drama.

The Twins have remained fan favorites in the Valley even as they’ve expanded their games in Brooklyn, and they’ll almost certainly be greeted with loud ovations when their moment of recognition comes.

“I’m definitely excited,” Bridges said. “I was telling Cam about it too, usually I’m not really too crazy about those things, but I’m excited just to be back and stuff like that. I saw when C and DA got theirs, I was just like, ‘You know what? Twins coming back, I might get a little love.’”

Johnson deflected questions about tribute videos, joking that Bridges deserved a “double-length feature” compared to a “Thank you, Cam” for himself, but there’s no doubt that he’ll allow himself to soak in the moment too.

It’s a similar situation to when he returned to Pittsburgh for the first time after leaving Pitt after his junior year. The first time he played back in that arena with North Carolina, he decided to take it all in and just enjoy the moment, acknowledging that he when he last played there, he never knew it would be his last game in a Pitt jersey.

“The opportunity to go back there and play was huge for me, and it’s the same situation here,” Johnson said. “The last game I played in this building, I didn’t know that it would be my last game in a Suns uniform for that time. So you just gotta take it as it comes, man. Enjoy it, allow the emotions or whatever that comes with it, just to apply it towards the court.”

Before they even get to that point, it’ll be a parade of familiar faces conjuring up old memories and emotions. Johnson’s parents are still out here in Phoenix with his dog Halo, and his little brother goes to Pinnacle High School, so Tuesday night gave him an opportunity to visit his family. Seeing them again was the highlight of his trip, even if Halo gave him a less-than-ideal welcome back present.

“She was bouncing off the wall, she sprinted out the door,” Johnson said. She was, like, wheezing. She’d go jump off the couch, run back and see me. She was excited, and she threw up shortly thereafter. So she was really excited, a little welcome home gift.”

Suns fans probably won’t go that far in welcoming the Twins back, but that lingering bond may make it difficult for to divert their focus back to the game at hand. There’s no bitterness on either side; just a mutual appreciation for the good times and an understanding of why things happened the way they did.

Bridges and Johnson have both been vocal about how they accepted being traded for Kevin Durant, one of the greatest players of all time. And try as he might to feel the “hate” for his former team that most traded players feel, Bridges couldn’t bring himself to do so when he’d watch Devin Booker and the Suns play on TV.

“I got no reason to hate against them, you know what I’m saying?” Bridges said. “Like, it was just the best years of my life here and just kinda helped me turn into the person I am today and just helped my career where I’m in Brooklyn now.”

“That trade and everything that’s happened since then with this team, that’s the business,” Johnson added. “And you gotta accept it, you gotta love it, you gotta be thankful that you have a part in it, thankful that I have an organization like Brooklyn, teammates like the ones I have here that I love playing alongside and love playing for. And it’s all just part of the journey.”

That journey now leads Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges back to Phoenix, where a very different Suns team awaits. Booker, Josh Okogie, Damion Lee and Saben Lee are the only remaining teammates from last year’s squad, and only Booker remains from the 2021 team that reached the Finals.

But regardless of what happens on the court, for one minute, a video tribute will play, fans will cheer, and memories from some of the best seasons in Suns franchise history will come rushing back. As much as going their separate ways was painful for the Twins and the fanbase alike, both parties are in a good place now. The Twins get to expand their games and build something new, while the Suns got the best player in the trade with a chance to compete for titles.

But as much as the trade was a no-brainer for both teams, even positive chance can be hard at first. Johnson said it best: Those feelings of sadness wouldn’t exist if there was nothing to miss in the first place.

“It’s really a blessing when you think about it, to have people that you miss like this, to have people that you grew an actual connection with, that it impacts you when you leave,” Johnson said. “So I take it all as positives, man. It doesn’t feel weird coming back here. It’s just a cool feeling, it’s familiar. I played here a lot of times, and looking forward to playing here tonight.”

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