NEW YORK -- In his second-most-recent playoff series, Mikal Bridges was not double-teamed. He was not blitzed. The opposing defense did not deny him the ball or try get it out of his hands. It wanted Bridges to make plays because that meant that his All-NBA teammates were not doing so.
The Dallas Mavericks' defensive strategy -- take Devin Booker and to a lesser extent Chris Paul out of the game -- was a bet that the rest of the Phoenix Suns, Bridges included, couldn't or wouldn't step up. It had worked well enough to force a Game 7 against the team with the best record in the NBA, and then it worked even better. Historically better. With the season on the line, Phoenix fell down by 40 points at home before either of its star guards made a field goal.
Bridges finished with six points on 3-for-11 shooting, numbers that reflected his team's complete lack of offensive flow. Reserve forward Cameron Johnson led the Suns in scoring with 12.
"I think you're always trying to stop the two or three best players on any given team, making the 'other guys,' quote-unquote, beat you," Spencer Dinwiddie, then the Mavericks' sixth man, said recently. "It's very obvious with that Phoenix team, especially last year, Book and CP were those guys. And then obviously you have to guard against [Deandre] Ayton because he was scoring so efficiently. So yes, it was make CJ, make [Jae] Crowder, make Mikal, make those guys beat you."
In the first half of his first playoff game as a member of the Brooklyn Nets, Bridges scored 23 points on 10-for-16 shooting. In the second quarter, he hit a one-legged fadeaway off the bounce over both Joel Embiid and James Harden, and on the broadcast ESPN analyst JJ Redick said, "If you would have told me four months ago, in mid-January, that Mikal Bridges had this deep of a bag, I wouldn't have believed you." Bridges was, by far, the Philadelphia 76ers' biggest problem.
In the second half, the Sixers defended him much more aggressively. They made it tough for him to catch the ball and blitzed him on pick-and-rolls. Coach Doc Rivers told reporters that they had to stop allowing Bridges to play in space because he is "too good" for that.
Bridges' basketball life has turned upside down as a member of the Brooklyn Nets. When he arrived in the Kevin Durant deal in February, he swapped the comfort of the familiar for more a leading-man role. After scoring 45 points in his third game in a Nets uniform, he said he'd never had 40 "in my life," at any level. In 26 regular-season games (excluding his four-second stint in the finale), Brooklyn Bridges averaged 27.2 points on 60.7 true shooting and had a usage rate of 29.5 percent.
"We all figured he'd be like a 20-point-a-game guy," Dinwiddie, now his teammate in Brooklyn, said. "We just didn't know he'd be like a 27-point-a-game guy, which is amazing."
It is not just defenses that are paying Bridges more attention. There have been features on ESPN and The Athletic, and he's done podcasts with Redick and CJ McCollum. Everybody wants to know where this transformation came from.
"I'm not overcomplicating nothing," Bridges said. "I didn't drink nothing different, I didn't eat nothing different, I didn't change nothing. I just kept getting better and kept working. And I think that's what people try to overthink. All you gotta do is just get better."
The day of Bridges' 30-point performance in Philadelphia, his old coach laughed about how many more shots he is taking. "He's shooting everything but a gun," Monty Williams told reporters, joking that he sleeps with his hands shot-ready. In a way, though, Phoenix's humiliating loss last May and Bridges' playoff debut for the Nets are two sides of the same coin. After Game 7, neither Bridges nor the Suns had any idea he'd be doing this, here, but they didn't want to go out like that again.
"What do you think we worked on all summer?" Johnson said.
Bridges had growing pains. He just got most of them out of the way before he got to Brooklyn. With Paul and Booker sidelined for long stretches earlier this season, the Suns' need for more playmaking became much more immediate. Bridges shot 4 for 24 in Houston, 6 for 15 in Washington and 3 for 15 in Cleveland, all losses.
"Everybody thinks it's going to be just green grass, but man, you're going to have to go through stuff to learn and get better," Bridges said. "That's all my coaches were telling me back in Phoenix when I was struggling a little bit. They were just like, 'It's good for you. Just keep embracing it.' And that's what I was doing, just keeping a high spirit and keep trying to be the best player I can be, best teammate, and eventually it'll help."
He got more comfortable in January: 28 points and nine assists against Brooklyn, a crunchtime takeover in San Antonio, 29 and six against Toronto. Six days before the trade, in Boston, Williams drew up a late-game play for Bridges, rather than Paul, to run a side pick-and-roll. Bridges brought the ball up, snaked the pick-and-roll and cashed a midrange jumper, CP3-style.
Bridges is known as an iron man, but to his "Twin," Johnson, showing up every day goes beyond playing through bumps and bruises. "He just loves doing this," Johnson said. "He's present. He shows up with his full effort, his full energy, his full personality every day." This is the case "even when things go tough."
All along, Bridges' plan was to play his role with all-out intensity while getting ready for an expanded one. "If I'm just in there to rebound and not shoot one shot, it doesn't mean I'm not in the gym working on everything offensively," Bridges said. In Phoenix, he knew that he was "not going to be in Book's role every time and come off and make a decision, but I'm going to practice, and after practice I'm going to work on my game and do a lot of stuff that I might not get to in a game."
Johnson has never played an NBA game without Bridges. "What you're seeing now," Johnson said, is a product of Bridges "being a sponge" around Paul, Booker and the coaching staff. He figured out how to get to his spots and rise up from midrange, how to use his speed and length to his advantage, how to attack angles and draw fouls.
"He's kind of created his own identity," Johnson said. "Slowly but surely. I saw, earlier in my career, he started getting to that pull-up. Pull-up, pull-up, pull-up. Then he started just getting that ingrained, ingrained, ingrained deeper in his game. He's always been a fantastic cutter, he's always been able to play in transition, but adding that pull-up has done wonders for him and he's continued to hone that in. So now he's able to play out of all three levels and get to his spots. But he's gradually drip-fed it in."
Every time the Suns played the Milwaukee Bucks, Khris Middleton noticed that Bridges had refined some part of his game or gained confidence. "You see it coming," Middleton said, himself having evolved from a defender and spot-up shooter to an All-Star years before. In Bridges' third season, he scored 27 points in a Finals game while badgering Middleton on the other end. Last season, he scored 20-plus 17 times, then dropped 31 in 47 minutes when Booker was sidelined in a first-round playoff game.
"I don't know if people have been paying attention," Johnson said. "It's not like the dude hasn't been scoring a lot these past couple years."
At summer league before his rookie season, Bridges told Vice Sports that he was trying to follow the path that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George walked. Last month, after a 38-point performance in a come-from-behind victory in Boston, he told ESPN that he studied George and Middleton. When he got traded, those who saw his work behind the scenes offered words of encouragement with a common theme.
"I was like, 'Yo, going to Brooklyn it's a new opportunity for you. Go over there and do your thing. You can be the guy over there,'" ex-Suns guard Jevon Carter said.
"I texted him when the trade went down to take full advantage of a bigger role," ex-Suns forward Jae Crowder said. "It's a bigger stage, bigger role, so take advantage."
No one, however, could have scripted it coming together quite like this. With the Nets, Bridges scored more points, took more shots and got to the free throw line more often than Leonard, George or Middleton did this season, on both a per-game and a per-possession basis. He had a higher usage rate than any of them, too, and, according to Synergy Sports, scored more efficiently in isolation.
"It's confirming what I always thought," Jay Wright, who coached Bridges at Villanova, said. "But I still gotta say it's amazing."
In his junior year at Villanova, Bridges took over a game against Gonzaga at Madison Square Garden. "It happened to be on national TV, everybody went crazy," Wright said. But Bridges never forced the issue. Even in high school and AAU, "when they needed it, he did it. But when they didn't need him to do it, he was willing to defend and rebound and make the right pass."
The funny part about Bridges being the clear-cut No. 1 option on an NBA team is not that he had the same usage rate as Clint Capela last season. It's that he has never cared that much about scoring.
In Brooklyn, he landed on a team stacked with players who were acquired to complement since-departed stars. In order for the Nets "to have a chance to win," he said, he has to be more aggressive as a scorer, and he's "trying to take accountability of it and try to be the best I can be."
Johnson said that, in Phoenix, there was never any hint of frustration from Bridges about how he was being used. "There was no, like, 'Man, I can do more, give me the ball more,'" Johnson said. "We had a great team, and it's a change of environment, just another opportunity for us. That's how he's looking at it."
Had the Suns never made the trade, Bridges' numbers wouldn't be this crazy. To Bridges, though, that would not mean he'd be any worse of a player.
"It's just a role," Bridges said. "Whatever it takes to win. And that's just how I am and it's how I've been for a long time. If I gotta playmake and get blitzed and make the right play every time, then I will. If I gotta score and they're playing drop defense or they're making me just go ISO or something, I'll go make it happen. Or if I gotta go guard the whole game, I will."
Bridges dismissed his impressive stats in Game 1 against the Sixers, telling reporters, "None of that shit matters when you lose." In Game 2, he was limited to 6-for-15 shooting, but dished seven assists, capitalizing on the help defense that Philadelphia was showing him. Right now, Bridges wants to shoulder this scoring load and create for others and pick up Harden full-court and do all the elite-role-player stuff that initially got him on the court.
If Bridges, last year's runner up for Defensive Player of the Year, gets backcut off the ball, he will be visibly mad at himself. Even though he's in a totally different team context, he sees the game the same way.
"That's just something I continue to work on and try not to lose," Bridges said. "Everything else that comes with it, just remember how I got here and keep defending and all the things. But also, it's tough. It's a process. I feel like I've been getting better at it. You're exerting more energy on offense, so you're going to be a little tired on defense and that's where lapses happen."
Wright said that Bridges never aspired to be "the man every night, counted on for 27, 28," but that's why he's been able to do it so efficiently: "He's the most intelligent, mature, humble professional athlete I know. He just gets the big picture of life and of being a pro athlete. Really, really a unique soul."
The "next challenge for him," Wright said, "is if they get other players and he doesn't need to score as much." Wright expects that, if and when other high-usage scorers join him in Brooklyn, it won't be a problem at all.
"100 percent," Bridges said.
Bridges is not carrying himself as if he has arrived, and he is not getting ahead of himself. He believes, earnestly, that if you play the right way, bring the right kind of energy and make the right decisions, the game will reward you. You just have to be patient.