Next step in Phoenix Suns evolution begins with Mikal Bridges

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PHOENIX – The Phoenix Suns need to improve.

That phrase might trip you up, because with a 41-10 record this season, they’ve proven themselves to be the best team in the NBA right now.

Will they hold that claim before the playoffs? Through the playoffs? It all boils down to these sentences. Championship teams improve during the regular season. Fifty-one games, that’s true for the Suns. They must continue.

From an individual standpoint, there’s one guy to watch on the Suns, and that’s Mikal Bridges.

Bridges is in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year and with Tony Allen as witness, you better be first team All-Defense. He took a few steps forward in that part of his game that he was already pretty good at.

Offensively, however, we didn’t quite see the breakthrough season that some anticipated. There’s still no primary third option in this offense, as Deandre Ayton’s success in his current role relies mostly on setting up Chris Paul. And this guy Devin Booker is Devin Booker.

The obvious choice for a third option has always been Bridges, but his rating actually went from 13.5 ppg last season to 12.9. His shooting percentages aren’t the reason. His 3-point percentage is down slightly from 42.5% to 37.2%, but his field goal percentage is still an excellent 52.0%.

I made the case for a breakout from Bridges in pre-season, and despite his skill and effectiveness in all three scoring areas on the floor, it has yet to materialize.

Again.

Thursday marked Bridges’ third straight game scoring 20+ points, the first time in three and a half NBA seasons that he’s ever had a streak like that.

Now, for someone like Bridges who attempts nearly four three-pointers per game, maybe that was a hot shot.

But that wasn’t it, and that’s where a week-long sample gets encouraging.

Bridges scored 30 field goals in those three outings and only five of them were 3s. The variety of those is exciting, not just because of the shot replication, but also the new ways head coach Monty Williams uses the bridges.

Let’s start with what we know.

Bridges are an integral part of the nearly endless variations of sets on the Suns’ elbow. The one you’ll easily recognize is when it grabs a screen and slides over the edge. It’s absolutely on the scouting report now, so I don’t know how the guys still aren’t sitting on it, but alas, it works.

They will also do it in the half court, where Bridges can use a dribble transfer with Paul as a decoy.

There are attacking closures, where Bridges was acting like he had been shot down by a cannon earlier in the season before that aggression started to fade a bit. A finger injury probably didn’t help matters.

But the aggressiveness is back.

Speaking of that extra pep in his step, he’s arguably the best cutter in basketball.

He will always get open shots because of the attention Booker and Paul are getting.

And then there’s transition, where Bridges has more room to take advantage of his ludicrous 83% conversion rate at the rim and utilize his elite speed.

Or, if he’s looking for it enough, his big 45% mark on midrange shots. This is a notable number since Bridges’ percentage of total shots from the midrange has risen from 22% a season ago to 35%, by Window cleaning. It’s rare.

Here’s what’s new or more important over the past week.

The decks have been deployed more as a screen, which is another way for him to get that kind of transitional space where it’s easier for him to get out of halves or field goal shots.

“I think watching (Torrey) Craig last year, playing that role as 5, how he was riding and all that,” Bridges said on Sunday of playing that role more. “It looked really good. In high school, I was the tallest so I used to ride sometimes. In my senior year in college, I was posting a bit more, so I know how to play a bit there.

This can be used when the suns get small or even when a center is still on the ground.

“He’s improved so much… He’s gotten used to putting screens on and making plays out of them,” Williams said of Bridges on Sunday. “I think for us it’s an environment that we can live in from time to time when they try to put defenders in him who sometimes aren’t the best defenders because they’re usually on Chris and Book. “

Excellent point, coach! Speaking of which, to attack him recently, the Suns had Bridges sealed for a deep post position and just shot those guards that aren’t on Booker or Paul with his big touch. Or just clean the decks on the block.

Williams said on Thursday there was no special focus in the game and it was probably just a read that Paul and Bridges were doing together, a read that Williams wanted the guy in his attack to have freedom. to execute.

Finally, if Bridges plays with that nerve, Williams will perform more sets for him. Again, it’s even better when a team like Atlanta tries to get away with Trae Young on them. Some of those previous clips were already examples of that and here are a few more.

It gets ahead of me, but if Bridges is that type of scoring presence, it opens up his game in those new spaces. He’s already proven himself to be a capable passer, so if teams are up for that quick one-screen slip, the offload pass for him is no sweat.

If Bridges can be more of a 15-18 PPG scorer in the second half of the season after the All-Star break, that could really push the Suns to the top spot toward a title shot. They already have a championship-caliber defense, as they showed last year, but what has fallen is on the attacking side of the ball.

They went 17 straight quarterbacks in the Western Conference Finals without reaching 30 points.

Booker and Paul were amazing in Game 1 in the first of two NBA Finals wins. Game 2 saw Phoenix hit 20 3s. In three of four losses to the Milwaukee Bucks, the Suns have scored 103 points or less. Booker had to carry pretty much the entire offense on his back in Games 4 and 5 and nearly did it with 40 straight burgers before everyone ran out of gas in Game 6.

If the Suns don’t add another ballhandler by the trade deadline, that extra offensive juice will have to come from someone else on the roster. Bridges are the best bet.

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