Phoenix Suns: Mikal Bridges to Continue Outplaying Michael Porter Jr.

Phoenix Suns, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Phoenix Suns, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

Three years ago this month, the Phoenix Suns traded for the recently drafted Mikal Bridges, exchanging a later pick with the Philadelphia 76ers for him. Just prior to that, they selected Deandre Ayton at No. 1 overall, prompting the team to fly back to Phoenix feeling satisfied and enthusiastic having acquired two incredibly promising young players.

Minutes after the Bridges pick though, Michael Porter Jr. heard his name called, putting on a Denver Nuggets hat at pick No. 14. Although still recovering from a back injury that scared off some teams, most viewed Porter Jr. and his selection as the draft’s final lottery pick to be an absolute steal, prompting Denver’s front office to walk away feeling encouraged as well.

Flash forward to last night, those exciteful post-draft feelings proved themselves well warranted, as Bridges trotted out onto the hardwood to start Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals for the Suns, while Porter Jr. did the same for the Nuggets. Although both players proved themselves as rising NBA stars many times before, this moment truely brought things full circle, with Bridges and Porter Jr. set to compete directly against each other as starting small forwards under the playoff’s bright lights.

After hitting six first quarter 3-pointers during his last game against the Portland Trailblazers, Porter Jr. opened well once again, splashing home a triple dished out by Austin Rivers just over two minutes into the game. He added another only three three possessions later, putting the Nuggets up 16-9 at the time.

Porter Jr. looked better early on, but Bridges blocked a layup attempt of his toward the first quarter’s halfway point. It would go down as a sign of what was soon to come.

Still, Porter Jr. again had his way offensively with Bridges during the second quarter, reeling in another six points. However, Bridges brought his own offensive firepower this period, adding seven points while going 2-3 on field goals, also sinking his two free-throw attempts.

But like his team behind him, Bridges hit another gear during the third quarter. The former Villanova Wildcat started the next period 3-3 from the field, including a 3-pointer to push his scoring total up to 18 and send a defeated looking Porter Jr. to the bench.

But even once Porter Jr. checked back into the game a few minutes later, Bridges kept the barrage flowing, finishing 5-5 from the field and tallying 13 points for the quarter. On the other hand, Porter Jr. struggled to handle Bridges’s exhaustive defensive efforts, managing only three points while shooting 1-4. With the game’s final results beyond question at that point, the two did not meet during the fourth quarter.

Altogether, Bridges finished with a playoff career high 23 points, five assists, two steals, and a blocked shot while shooting 66.7 percent from the field. Porter Jr. finished with 15 points and two assists while shooting 46.2 percent, a modest effort but one clearly upstaged by that of Bridges.

Going forward though, no evidence exists that might forecast a decrease in production for Bridges. During the regular season, Bridges averaged 16.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game against the Nuggets. Those numbers earn a +2.8 point, +1.0 rebound, and +0.7 assist differential between his averages against all other teams this year.

Additionally, the Nuggets have made porous defense against those at Bridges’s position a detrimental habit thus far during the playoffs. Allowing forwards to score with a 48.1 field goal percentage, only the Washington Wizards, Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, and Memphis Grizzlies post worse marks than Denver, all of whom are eliminated. The Nuggets also allow the second most corner 3-pointers per game to their opponents, a location where Bridges made nearly half his field goals from last night.

While Porter Jr. remains far too offensively talented to completely silence, Bridges stands about as properly equipped as any defender can be. His defensive blitz on Porter Jr. came as no fluke, with Bridges owning a history of frustrating players with similar play styles and builds such as Jimmy Butler (6-16), Jayson Tatum (8-21), Paul George (9-21), and the red hot TJ Warren (7-20) from the bubble last year.

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Some draft-class comradery seems to exist between Porter Jr. and Bridges for now, potentially pumping the breaks on any hard-nosed rivalry. But the playoffs indeed bring out competitiveness and intensity unlike any other stage. If these two end up going toe-to-toe with each other whether during Game 2 or some point beyond, put your money on Bridges to play the better game.