Cam Johnson stood in a wide stance across from LeBron James as the Los Angeles Lakers attempted to make one final push in the closing minutes of Game 6.
James made a beeline to the basket, but Johnson remained disciplined in his defensive approach. The Phoenix Suns’ second-year wing stayed in front of the 17-time All-Star, forcing James into a spin move. But Johnson reacted quickly, reaching in and stripping the ball out of his hands.
Already closing in to help defensively, Mikal Bridges swiped the ball off the floor and sprinted up court for the fastbreak. Trailing right behind him was Johnson, ready to assist his teammate with a putback if needed. The sequence sealed the Suns win, and closed out the first-round series.
“When I'm on the court, I can always count on him,” Johnson said about Bridges. “It's always really clear between us what we're doing. … It makes it a lot easier on me, for sure.”
Johnson and Bridges are now known as “The Twins,” a nickname coined by Deandre Ayton because they are always around each other and play a similar position and style. After forming their initial bond heading into the 2019-20 season, Johnson’s and Bridges’ relationship flows from the locker room onto the court and epitomizes the Suns’ necessary trust, togetherness and overall synergy that has led them to the Western Conference Finals.
Though the Suns have an aggressive mindset on the floor, they have a rather welcoming and hospitable environment for newcomers. The most recent example is Torrey Craig, a midseason acquisition who was invited to play cards with Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Jae Crowder on his first plane ride. Johnson received a similar reception after he was drafted in the summer of 2019 and arrived in The Valley.
One of the first to greet him was Bridges, who had just come off his rookie season. And the two swiftly grew close.
“You learn quick why everybody likes him, everybody kind of gravitates toward him,” Johnson said. “Just easy to get along with. I think everybody on the team would agree with that.”
The Twins noticed their similarities throughout their early workouts heading into their first season as teammates: their length defensively, their sharp-shooting ability and their continued focus on the fundamentals that transferred over from college.
Both players entered the league as upperclassman from two of the most prestigious basketball schools in the country: North Carolina (Johnson) and Villanova (Bridges). Beyond the details that were drilled through their programs, Bridges added that winning two national championships at Villanova taught him the importance of staying poised no matter the circumstance. Johnson said his biggest takeaway was understanding the importance of chemistry, especially on a roster full with other first-round-caliber players.
“I'm sure Mikal would say the same thing,” Johnson said. “Mikal had a really, really, really good team. And so by learning how to play with really good players, where you may not be the main focus every game, it does give you more of a team-first mentality. I think that was definitely really important for my development.”
Added Bridges: “Our biggest thing at college was attitude. When times get tough, just staying together, not overreacting. … Staying locked in and don’t let runs or anything really get in your head.”
The two bonded over these experiences, entering the league with a more mature mindset than most rookies. And as they began battling head-to-head at practice, matching up at small forward, that connection only grew closer.
“Naturally we just had a lot of workouts together and we are asked to do pretty similar things on the court,” Johnson said. “So just time exposed to one another, he's become a really good friend of mine.”
Johnson and Bridges joined one of the youngest rosters in the NBA. But instead of shying away from the more experienced competition, the pair, along with other core pieces such as Devin Booker and Ayton, rallied together to prove they could be something special.
“It's really nice because we get to spend time together off the court, kind of in similar stages of life,” Johnson said. “I would say it's better to have a couple of other guys along with you where you feel like you're growing together, learning together."
Though Bridges and Johnson have technically only played together for two seasons, it feels much longer due to last year’s hiatus, the Orlando Bubble run and now their first NBA playoff experience. But throughout this unbalanced time that saw the Suns’ transformation from the second-worst record in the NBA to the second-best, Johnson believes that going on this journey together has assisted in developing that special bond.
“When you go through those same things and you start to understand one another, you just share a lot,” Johnson said. “You share a lot of the hard times. You share a lot of the good times. Through that, you kind of just become closer to someone.”
Both wings push each other’s games to another level. Through offseason training in Phoenix and while staying behind after practice, Johnson and Bridges work out together, play one-on-one together and lift weights together, trying their hardest to bring out the best in one another.
“It's competitive, for sure,” Johnson said. “When you have somebody that's so similar to you, you can pick things up like, 'Oh, okay. He's scoring like this way right now or he's finding success doing this.' It's really helpful.”
Established relationships like Johnson’s and Bridges’ have helped the Suns’ chemistry as a whole. During a shortened offseason that brought in eight new players, along with a season filled with restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Suns used their team bubble to grow closer together.
“We haven’t been able to be out and about in public, we’ve just been around each other a lot,” head coach Monty Williams said. “On the plane, on the bus, in the gym. I think that helps you on the floor when you have those moments where your poise and mental stamina is a premium. You’re doing it with guys you really care about and you already spent a ton of time with.”
Johnson said this additional time together has paid dividends for the Suns on and off the floor and gives a glimpse into what the future may hold. General manager James Jones and Williams built the foundation for the overall culture, but the buy-in from the players with their collective team-first mentality continues to raise the ceiling.
“When you get to professional sports, you hear that it's kind of every man for themselves,” Johnson said. “But I really feel like, here, we've built a culture where it's bigger than the individuals.”
The Twins are not the only players who have been able to seamlessly fit in with the rest of the roster due to their versatility, ability to stretch the floor and overall relentless effort. The additions of veterans Jae Crowder and Craig have provided the Suns with a pair of playoff-experienced wings who utilize a similar style from which Johnson and Bridges can continue to learn.
“(Crowder is) always someone that you can rely on, even when he's not hitting shots, to be a pest, to defend, to play hard, to rebound,” Johnson said. “He brings that same energy, that same attitude every day. Same thing with Torrey.”
The tough battles at practice, the consistency in their work ethic and the focus on their fundamentals are paying off for Bridges and Johnson under the bright lights of the postseason. Bridges has scored in double digits in nine of the 11 games so far, averaging 12.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 0.9 blocks per game. Johnson has provided a spark off the bench, averaging 7.2 points on 41 percent from 3-point range to go along with 2.8 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game.
Despite it being their first playoff experience, Crowder is not surprised by the production of the young wings, saying, “They’re doing exactly what I expected.”
“They’re fearless,” Crowder said. “I knew they were ready for that moment. Whatever is thrown at them, they’re attacking it. … They’re just doing a good job of knowing what we’re trying to accomplish and trying to give it their all each and every possession. As a young guy, first time in the playoffs, that’s all you can ask out them and the rest will take care of itself.”
Williams has taught the importance of preparation all season. Crowder, who has been to the playoffs eight of nine NBA seasons, delivered a similar message to Bridges and Johnson prior to the postseason. As long as they are prepared, Crowder said, all Johnson and Bridges need to do is play and react, rather than overthink or be timid.
That additional time that Bridges and Johnson spent watching film and playing one-on-one together has eased their emotions throughout this playoff journey.
“I don't think there's ever been a situation where I felt kind of overwhelmed by it.,” Johnson said. “I'd say it's kind of just replaced by excitement. I think a big part of that is the guys that I have around me. When you're playing with guys like Book, CP, Mikal, Jae — guys that are just really consistent, really steady — you get a calmness going into the game knowing what you're going to get out of your teammates.
“It doesn't feel as nerve-wracking because you go into the game feeling like you know what you need to do specifically to help your team win.”
The Twins had quite possibly their best collective game on their biggest stage yet during Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Clippers.
With Paul unable to play due to health and safety protocols, Cameron Payne entered the starting lineup, amplifying Johnson’s offensive role in the second unit. Just before checking in with less than three minutes remaining in the first quarter, Bridges chatted with Johnson near the Suns’ bench before the two swapped spots on the court.
Johnson’s impact was quick, draining a 3-pointer on the Suns’ first possession after subbing in. He followed that up with a second 3-pointer early in the second quarter.
Shortly after, Bridges checked in to play alongside Johnson with the Suns down by one. Two Johnson buckets, one off a cut and one acrobatic layup, quickly put him at 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting. He also corralled a sky-reaching steal. More importantly, Johnson led the Suns’ 6-0 charge to get back in front during that spurt with him and Bridges on the floor together.
Williams reemphasized that Johnson is more than just a shooter saying, “That’s one thing he does that he doesn’t get enough credit for, his ability to finish. Whether it’s with a dunk or with a layup, Cam can play fast and under control.”
With the Suns up by six with just five minutes remaining in a tight game, Williams again turned to The Twins to help close things out.
Even when they did not score or grab steals, Johnson and Bridges impacted the game well beyond the stat sheet. Their ability to stretch the floor from 3-point range opened up the paint, giving Booker space to drive to the basket and dish to Ayton for the strong finish.
Then, the Clippers’ Reggie Jackson found himself in difficult spot when Bridges got the ball beyond the 3-point arc with a wide-open Johnson to his right. Bridges faked the pass to Johnson, guiding Jackson off of him, before putting the ball on the floor and driving for the one-handed slam.
Bridges and Johnson also made their mark the defensive end during crunch time. Johnson stood his ground against a driving Terrance Mann with three minutes to play, forcing him to pass out a few feet from the basket. On the next Clippers possession, Jackson drove with Crowder and Ayton engulfed around him. Johnson clogged up his passing lane to his right, so Jackson had to throw the ball left. Waiting there was Bridges for the quick steal and sprint that led to a fastbreak, alley-oop, poster finish on a lob from Booker.
Bridges had been pretty quiet offensively for most of the game, but became aggressive when it mattered most. He drained a clutch 3-pointer in the corner with two minutes remaining to extend the Suns’ lead to double-digits with two minutes remaining.
“Mikal had great patience tonight,” Williams said postgame. “He didn’t get a ton of looks tonight, but when it came to him late, he was ready.”
A final Clippers push brought the game within two points. But with 12 seconds remaining, Los Angeles was in desperate need for a bucket. Paul George drove against Crowder, but Bridges recognized the situation, soared into the paint, and blocked George’s shot attempt off the glass to help the Suns take a 1-0 series lead in the Western Conference Finals.
Even without their closer in Paul, the Suns’ lineup of Booker, Bridges, Johnson, Crowder and Ayton held on strong. Should Phoenix need that lineup again in Game 2, Johnson believes it offers a lot on both ends of the floor.
“It’s a lot of length, so defensively we can switch guys around, move guys on different people and just cover a lot of ground on the court,” Johnson said. “Offensively, it’s a group that’s really capable of shooting. At the end of the game, they were starting to trap a little more, blitz, and I think we have guys in that group that can pick that apart.
“There’s Book making plays out of it, Deandre diving towards the rim and then me, ‘Kal and Jae on the outside either attacking or shooting.”
The Suns have now won a franchise-record eight consecutive playoff games. A big reason why is the play of The Twins, who continue to prove themselves during this electric postseasson run and epitomize the Suns’ chemistry that flows from the locker room to the court.