PHOENIX — Mikal Bridges’ turnaround jumper in the opening minute at Staples Center bounced off the front of the rim. Then a three-pointer from the left corner did not fall. Then another long-range attempt from the opposite side went clang.
Bridges missed his first eight shots against the Lakers earlier this week. Yet how the Suns wing responded is what teammate Jae Crowder believes illustrated Bridges’ growth in his fourth NBA season.
“His mental stamina is at a higher level,” Crowder said. “’Kal used to go into a shell if he missed a few shots, you know what I’m saying? But now it’s, like, continue to take those shots. Continue to trust your work.
“Your teammates trust you. We put you in position to make plays, just go out there and do it.”
That trust in Bridges reverberates throughout the Suns’ organization, which this summer rewarded him with a contract extension that will pay him $90 million over four years starting next season. And for good reason.
The Philly native and former Villanova star has blossomed into one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders, using length and instinct to guard Russell Westbrook, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Steph Curry in the span of one week. His multi-faceted offensive game makes him more than a stereotypical “3 and D” wing. A modern-day ironman, Bridges has yet to miss a game in three-plus NBA seasons and has the league’s longest active streak for consecutive games played (280). And he will be in the Christmas Day spotlight on Saturday, when the 26-5 Suns face the 26-6 Golden State Warriors in a matchup of the teams with the NBA’s two best records.
“Not too many people can say it, but it’s been great, man,” Bridges said Thursday from the Suns’ practice facility. “It’s been a grind. I’m in a great position with great staff, great teammates, great up-top management, everything.
“It just feels so good to be here and be part of this. I don’t take it for granted at all. I’m just blessed to be put in this position.”
Much has changed since Bridges’ 2018 draft night, when he was famously traded from his hometown 76ers that employed his mother to the then-sputtering Suns. He is one of only three players still around from that rookie-season roster — two-time All-Star Devin Booker and former No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton are the others — as the franchise underwent a massive overhaul that resulted in Phoenix emphatically breaking its 11-year playoff drought with a thrilling run to the 2021 Finals.
As a rookie, Bridges learned offensive tendencies on the fly while immediately thrust into guarding stars such as James Harden, Paul George, and Kevin Durant. During his second season, a candid chat with then-new coach Monty Williams set expectations that helped him gain traction in the rotation and, later, as a full-time starter. He was terrific during the Suns’ stunning 8-0 run in the Orlando bubble following the league’s 2020 hiatus, scoring in double figures six times while shooting 40% from beyond the arc.
Bridges carried that strong finish into a career season in 2020-21 while the Suns staged their dramatic resurgence.
He was a perplexing All-Defensive Team snub for a team that ranked sixth in the league in efficiency (110.4 points allowed per 100 possessions). He expanded his offensive game to include a nifty pull-up jumper in the lane and an ability to finish with strength and craft at the rim in transition. He averaged 13.5 points on 42.5% shooting from three, 4.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.1 steals per game while also playing with high-level nuances, such as constantly cutting and being in perpetual motion on offense in an effort to tire out the opposing defender.
During a quick turnaround after the Finals, Bridges balanced working on “getting a little better at everything” with taking care of his body to handle another long postseason run. Though his offensive numbers have taken a slight dip — “obviously I want to shoot the ball a little bit better than I am right now” (51.6% from the floor, including 38.6% from three-point range entering Thursday), he said — he is perhaps even better defensively this season.
He swarms to put his individual assignment in “Mikal Jail,” a nickname coined by television play-by-play announcer Kevin Ray, and uses his 7-foot-1 wingspan to jump into passing lanes for deflections and steals. He believes he is now a better help defender for a unit that entered Thursday ranked third in the NBA in efficiency (103.7 points allowed per 100 possessions). In consecutive games last month, Bridges was the primary defender when Harden went 4-of-15 from the floor, and for Curry’s worst shooting performance with at least 20 field goal attempts of his career (4-of-21 from the field, 3-of-14 from three-point range), per StatMuse.
“He guards the toughest guy every single night, sometimes 94 feet,” Williams told reporters recently. “All-Stars, 1A, 2A guys, Mikal is on them. His value to our team, it’s hard to quantify, because it allows for other guys, not to take a break, but they don’t have to chase those guys around the floor the way that he does.”
Early last season, Suns All-Star point guard Chris Paul — a future Hall of Famer who is relentlessly detailed and a demanding teammate — called Bridges “one of the best guys I think I’ve ever been around” in his 17-year career. That’s because of a work ethic that is imperative to fit in Williams’ culture, and a sneaky sense of humor that makes Bridges well-liked in the Suns’ locker room.
Those teammates and coaches, in turn, have given Bridges the belief to remain aggressive offensively on the floor.
“Obviously, I’m mentally tough enough,” Bridges said. “But sometimes you need that reassurance from your guys and the people that give you the ball.”
Through it all, Bridges has virtually always been available.
His wrapped right pinky finger was a reminder of his latest health scare, a dislocation he sustained Dec. 3 against Golden State before finishing the game. As a rookie, he missed two preseason games because of a left elbow injury — but he has never sat out a full Suns contest that counted in the standings. Perhaps the closest he came to missing time was when an injury to his other elbow about midway through that rookie season made it painful to shoot, though he never told his family, agent, or the Suns’ medical staff because, “they would have told me to shut it down.”
“A little finger messed up, I can play with that,” Bridges said of his current ailment. " … It’s just wanting to be out there, man. That’s the biggest thing — just don’t want to miss a game, just want to play, take advantage of being in the NBA, and playing the game of basketball.
“It’s so crazy. You get here and everybody is talking about what do you want to do after. You feel like they’re just trying to rush you, but it makes sense because it’s not for life.”
The Suns returned last season’s core, and added former Sixer Landry Shamet along with JaVale McGee to sharpen their rotation to stay atop the Western Conference. Phoenix won a franchise-record 18 consecutive games earlier this season, squashing any expectations of an immediate Finals hangover.
“The confidence we have out there, it feels like it went up another level from last year,” Bridges said. “... We just enjoy it. We enjoy life. We enjoy being around each other. We enjoy the game of basketball.”
That’s why there are no lingering salty feelings about Bridges’ draft night.
He misses his family and friends in Philly. He appreciates the way the city toughened his mentality, which he’s now embracing when Suns fans get on him during struggles because that “[lets] me know that you care.” Had he not been traded to the Suns and begun his career with the Sixers, Bridges wondered aloud if he could have been dealt away later as part of the trades that brought Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to Philly his rookie season.
“I don’t know where I could have been,” Bridges said. “I could have been anywhere.”
Instead, Bridges has a lucrative new contract with the Suns. He has the trust of his teammates to continue to let it fly when open, even when eight consecutive shots don’t drop through the net. And Bridges’ confidence as a versatile contributor for a championship contender will be on display during Christmas Day’s marquee matchup against the Warriors.
“Being here and knowing the city, the people, and what we’ve been doing these past years, I don’t even think twice about ever being home,” Bridges said. “I’m in a great situation now, and I love it.”