Despite experiencing turbulence with injuries and inconsistency, the Phoenix Suns have benefitted from at least one stable presence.
Suns forward Mikal Bridges holds the NBA’s longest active “Ironman streak”, which entails the most consecutive games played (338 games through his first five seasons). He appears on pace to finish with career highs in points per game (16.2), rebounds (5.1), assists (3.1) and minutes played (36.6). And Phoenix (17-12) hosts the New Orleans Pelicans (18-10) on Saturday (9 ET, NBA TV) with Bridges expected to draw the primary perimeter defensive assignment.
Nonetheless, Bridges sounded self-critical about his play just as much as with the Suns’ recent five-game losing streak.
“I have to be better,” Bridges told NBA.com. “I don’t think I’m at the level that I want to be.”
Bridges talked to NBA.com about numerous topics, including his Kia Defensive Player of the Year chances, his “Ironman streak”, expanded offensive game and the Suns’ recent struggles.
Editor’s note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.
NBA.com: How do you evaluate your defense so far compared to last season when you made All-NBA Defensive First Team?
Bridges: It’s early, but I have to continue to get better and not have any lapses. I’ve had a lot of lapses with getting beat on (backdoor) cuts. I have to stay with it. They want me scoring more, but I still have to stay locked in on the defensive end. I have to be more aggressive and physical.
How did you look at last season’s accolades considering you stated it was a goal to win DPOY?
It was a blessing just to be even in a race. It’s something I couldn’t even dream about. Marcus Smart won it, and he deserved it. He’s been guarding since I’ve been watching him at Oklahoma State. He’s worked hard, and he was on a great team as well. He deserved it. It’s just a blessing to be in that conversation.
What’s your outlook on winning the award this season?
Accolades don’t mean too much. I just want to be the best defender and best teammate to help the team win. I know a lot of players that have gotten a lot of accolades, but they want to win more than getting accolades. That’s the biggest thing.
What’s your defensive approach on star players?
Just know what they want. They’re so creative and so tough to guard. You try to make it tough on them, be aggressive and try not to foul. They’re elite at drawing fouls. So, it isn’t easy.
Which defensive matchups are most challenging?
There are a lot of guys. Luka [Doncic] has always been tough every year. He keeps getting better. Dame [Lillard], Steph [Curry], Paul George, Kawhi [Leonard] when he’s out there healthy. There are a lot of tough guys. I’m just naming names. There are plenty more. But they have so much pure skill. There are a lot of guys in the NBA that have so much skill and are crafty. It’s tough.
You hold the NBA’s current “Ironman streak” (338 consecutive games). What have you done to maximize your health?
I’m blessed to have skinny bones that stay together. I want to be out there. Coach [Jay] Wright at Villanova stressed, “If you’re not seriously hurt, then you’re going to be out there.” That stuck with me. Even if I roll my ankle, I try to shake it off. It’s on to the next game. It’s going to hurt. But if you get a little sub or timeout, just shake it off and be ready to play.
You’re on pace for career highs in points, rebounds, assists and minutes. What has gone into that?
My teammates and coaches are giving me confidence. I’m in Arizona all summer and in the gym a lot trying to get better. They trust me to go out there and play in our system. I appreciate them so much. They tell me to be aggressive. [Devin] Booker was recently telling me, “I need you to be ultra-aggressive.” That gives me confidence when I hear my guys tell me that. I can just go play.
Suns coach Monty Williams praised you for how you have diversified your scoring since last season with attacking the basket, your mid-range game and 3-point shot. What has been key to becoming a versatile scorer?
A lot of work and film. I’m watching film with coaches and they’re telling me to keep mixing it up. They show me different opportunities on when to be aggressive. Then I just read and react and see how the defense plays me. I always have a mindset to be ready to catch and shoot. I play off my jump shot. If my jump shot is feeling good, they have to guard you a little closer. That’s when you can drive. I’m being confident with playing through my shot and then reading and reacting.
Have yourself a night, @mikal_bridges 👏
Game-high 27 PTS
1 STL pic.twitter.com/2gB4hAJ3sP
— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) December 16, 2022
With your expanded mid-range game, Booker said you’re part of “The Middy Committee” with himself and Chris Paul.
He said that? (laughs). Against the Clippers, he told me coming off a timeout that there is a play for me to shoot a middy. He told me not to even try to get to the rim. He said, “Just get to your spot.” That gives me confidence as well. I was thinking the same thing. But him having confidence in me is dope.
Booker also talked up your mid-range skills during the 2021 NBA Finals, but joked then that it might be too early to say you’re part of “The Middy Committee.” When did you sense Devin, Chris and Monty fully trusted that part of your game?
The Finals opened everything up. But when I was shooting it a lot last season, they realized that I have it. Coach started drawing up more plays for me to get a middy. Last season was a big jump for them.
What do you take away from the ups and downs this season with the winning and losing streaks as well as the overlapping injuries?
It’s about staying together, no matter what. When you win, stay together. But how are you as a team when you lose? We had a rough patch with losing all of those games in a row. We finally got a win. It shows who we are as a team with being together. Even with guys being out and having different lineups, we’re still staying the course and still learning.
Injuries aside, what else explained the recent struggles?
We weren’t connected as a team defensively. That’s the biggest thing. We met and Coach talked to us and we got better. We had to help each other. We had to shift for each other and stop giving guys the open lane. We’re trying to do the right things. But he went over things and reminded us that we were forcing it.
What lessons do you take from the second-round playoff exit last season to Dallas, both as a team and individually?
Everything matters. Every possession counts. You have to defend as a team and be more together than anybody. If you want to win a championship, all 15-16 guys and staff have to be locked in. It’s tough. That’s why not everybody wins. It’s about staying together when times get tough.
How have you seen the team carry that through this season?
We’ve done a good job. We went through a losing lapse, but we still stayed together. We’re trying to get better. Having a lot of regular-season wins doesn’t really matter when it comes to the playoffs. We’re trying to be the best team we can be.
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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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