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Mikal Bridges' stellar Game 5 serves up reminder of Suns' championship ceiling

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
April 27, 2022

First things first: The Phoenix Suns aren’t winning a championship this year without a healthy Devin Booker. That much has become clear during their hard-fought first-round playoff series with the New Orleans Pelicans, which isn’t over yet by any means.

But as the clock wound down in Game 5, with back-to-back dunks sending the Footprint Center into a frenzy, Mikal Bridges provided a nice reminder of this team’s championship ceiling when he plays like that.

To be clear, no one is expecting the type of historically dominant two-way performance Bridges submitted Tuesday on a nightly basis. Still, finishing with a game- and playoff career-high 31 points, the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up showed yet again why he’s far more than just a role player. He’s the X-factor that punishes teams and can push Phoenix over the top.

It wasn’t just scoring, though. Bridges was hyper-efficient, shooting 12-for-17 from the floor, 4-for-4 from 3-point range and 3-for-3 from the foul line. He helped out on the glass, chipping in 5 rebounds. He was an absolute nightmare for the Pelicans defensively, racking up 4 blocks and a steal. And he impacted the game in every facet, finishing as a +13 despite playing a whopping 47 minutes.

“That’s what ‘Kal do,” Deandre Ayton said. “That’s Iron Man, to be honest. The man takes care his body and he approaches the game the same way every day. He don’t change up nothing. He’s a true student of the game, and it’s contagious, ’cause we know the type of task he has every game.”

We already knew Mikal Bridges was Phoenix’s Iron Man, but seeing it play out in a pivotal Game 5 against a scrappy 8-seed with nothing to lose was a stark (get it?) reminder of what this team can achieve when he plays like that. Logging 47 minutes is one thing, but playing 47 minutes that well is another entirely.

“He’s just one of those rare basketball players that can play that way on defense but also give you the point production that he gave tonight,” coach Monty Williams said. “I mean, to have the energy to cut backdoor and finish strong at the rim, the last dunk he had, it was like it was the first quarter.”

After averaging 13.8 points through the first four games of the series, Bridges led the charge in reminding the world what the deepest team in basketball can do when the “other guys” are firing on all cylinders. He aggressively attacked the basket, cut backdoor and cleverly positioned himself right in the dunker’s spot for easy buckets:

He was actively looking to launch from 3-point range despite only shooting 2-for-9 from downtown through the first four games:

And once he was on a roll, he threw in a confident backbreaker from the midrange:

“It was great, we needed it,” Chris Paul said. “We needed it from everybody. ‘Kal, I didn’t even know he had 31. But he’s more than capable of that, and doing it both ways, which he done did it all season long for us.”

Make no mistake about it: Bridges’ Game 5 performance was not just the best all-around game of his career, but a historically efficient two-way performance that stands out in franchise and NBA history.

For starters, Bridges joined Amar’e Stoudemire as the only players in Suns history to put up a 31-5-4-2-1 stat line in a playoff game, per Stathead. Throw in Bridges’ 70 percent shooting, and the only players in NBA playoff history to meet that criteria were Jermaine O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (twice), Robert Reid, Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Bridges also joined LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Vince Carter as the only seven players in NBA history to record at least 30 points, 4 blocks and four made 3s in a playoff game.

It was obviously the best offensive night of his career, but was it the best defensive performance he’s had in his young career too? Bridges — who is notorious for redirecting praise to his teammates and coaches –seemed to think so.

“Could be,” he said. “I think so, personally, yeah. But we was all defending out there, man. Me being so confident up there is, I know, A) I got [Ayton] back there, and B) I got three other teammates with him protecting me.”

Even as he defers to the Suns’ team defense, the numbers back up that Mikal Bridges was just as dominant defensively in Game 5 as he was offensively. The matchup data speaks for itself:

That’s a combined 3-of-17 shooting he held four of the Pelicans’ biggest offensive threats to on Tuesday…all while shooting 12-for-17 himself on the other end.

“We put him on everybody,” Williams said. “Can’t clone him, but you wish you could.”

Brandon Ingram, who’d been torching the Suns to the tune of 29.8 points and 5.3 assists per game on .513/.500/.879 shooting splits through the first four games, struggled in Game 5 with Williams sticking Bridges on him a bit more. Ingram put up only 22 points on 7-of-19 shooting, and the Warden’s length and active hands bothered him on multiple occasions:

Bridges didn’t mind feasting on some of the Pelicans’ role players when he found himself matched up on them either.

Devonte’ Graham got bullied into two turnovers, and then Bridges swatted him twice in the same possession, almost insulted that Graham had the audacity to test him again after the first rejection:

Herb Jones once again got caught on an overly physical play, leading with his elbow for a bucket that was overturned as an offensive foul. One of Jones’ drives later in the fourth quarter was swiped as well, thanks to Bridges getting a hand on the ball:

And poor CJ McCollum, who’s been held to 10-of-32 shooting in this series when defended by Bridges, simply couldn’t get the Warden out of his head. He rushed pull-up jumpers, fired whenever he saw an inch of space just to get a shot off and got blocked on a midrange jumper that very few defenders in this league could reach:

“He’s learned how to use his length to his advantage,” Williams said. “To play that kind of defense and only have one foul says a lot about his IQ and understanding the way the game is being called. It certainly helps us in so many ways, and he covers up a lot of mistakes, and that’s hard to do when you’re playing on the wing.”

Ayton said Bridges being that type of anchor from the point of attack makes his job that much easier on defense.

“Game 4, them dudes was comfortable in their pick-and-rolls, and tonight, Mikal was in their way every time down,” Ayton said. “All I had to do was just mirror him and make sure they’re not getting too deep or [Jonas] Valanciunas is not getting behind me on those pick-and-rolls, but ‘Kal made everybody’s life easy, putting pressure on the ball and making those dudes get late into their offense.”

And yet, after submitting the performance of his career on both ends of the floor, Bridges wasn’t tired after Game 5. The 25-year-old hasn’t missed a single game in his NBA or college career, has logged 38, 40, 40, 41 and 47 minutes in each game this series, and yet, he still wasn’t tired.

So where does he find the energy? His teammates, for starters.

“I’m ready to play tomorrow, I’m amped,” he said, smiling. “I’m teed up, man. I’m energized, my teammates get me going.”

Bridges also mentioned his mental approach of telling himself there are five quarters instead of four, so by the time the fourth arrives, he’s not crashing or holding anything back by trying to pace himself. Cam Payne and Jae Crowder’s foul trouble played a role in those 47 minutes, but so did the trust Monty Williams has in him to stay out on the floor that long.

“I’m just looking at him, like, ‘Please keep me in,'” Bridges said. “We have that eye contact sometimes, and that’s just trust. He trusts me, just knowing if I’m gonna keep going. He’ll realize if I’m dead-tired out there, ‘I need to get him out of the game,’ but just that trust that we built and the bond we have. So yeah, I appreciate him. I like being out there.”

Two-way performances that are so equally dominant on both ends are rare in this league. They’re typically reserved for superstars, not the third- or fourth-best player on a playoff team, depending on who you ask. But as Mikal Bridges continues to come into his own, and as the Suns adjust to this critical stretch without Devin Booker, it won’t be long before Bridges adds more star-caliber performances to his resumé.

Maybe it continues in Game 6 on the road, maybe it doesn’t. But entering a hostile environment looking to close out their first-round opponent, the Suns showed in Game 5 that they’re still the Suns when they’ve got a functional CP3, a confident Ayton and an aggressive Bridges.

“That’s why I say the expectations are there,” Paul said. “That’s why, to us, he was our Defensive Player of the Year. He plays every single night. It’s so crazy in this league, everybody talks about when guys miss games and sitting out and they’re not playing on this nationally-televised game, but how do you credit a guy who straps ’em up every night? You don’t. He go out there and play every single night, and that’s what we expect from him.”

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