Road closeouts have become a commonality for the Phoenix Suns, having earned series-clinching wins away from home in all their postseason series dating back to last year.
Phoenix’s first round bout with the New Orleans Pelicans was no different, as the Suns flexed their muscles in the clutch yet again, stamping their tickets to the second round with a 115-109 Game 6 victory. Time and time again, they pieced together numerous efforts conducive to winning at a high level.
Devin Booker missed the bulk of round one with his hamstring strain, and statistical outputs were scarce outside of the Phoenix’s next best players. However, the strengths of these two were abundant in ways unique to each of them.
Mikal Bridges Gives the Phoenix Suns Incredible Two-Way Play
The Warden and his propensity for amassing stops, in the most fundamental manner, was on repeat the entire first round. His premier point of attack defense was ever-present, as he split time guarding CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram—two elite scorers with contrasting styles of getting to their spots.
He held McCollum to 33 points (via 36 shots) on 36 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from deep. He also forced six turnovers in his 47 minutes while guarding. Ingram scored 24 points (via 20 shots) on 50 percent shooting. He ended up with six turnovers in his 25 minutes spent with Bridges as his primary defender.
Pelicans in general shot 34-for-86 with Bridges as the primary defender. That’s an ice cold 39.5 percent shooting. In getting to that point, New Orleans against Bridges shot 36.6 percent from past 15 feet, 39.4 percent inside 10 feet, 41.1 percent inside six feet, and 37.5 percent on triples.
Bridges was remarkably dominant defensively (especially in Game Five), even past his typical standards that got him a second-place finish in the Defensive Player of the Year race this season.
Even more exemplary, Bridges defended at this level for 41.8 minutes per game, and averaged just 2.5 fouls per contest to show for it. In all the discourse around Bridges and his greatness in defense and availability, his ability to consistently avoid foul trouble does not get nearly enough attention.
The way the games are officiated in today’s NBA, and even more-so on the playoffs stage, it is a skill in itself to defend in any capacity without drawing whistles.
Defense was just half of the story for Bridges though, as he embodied the most consistent Phoenix scorer outside of Paul and Ayton. In the first round, he averaged 17.3 points per game, and even included a 31-point outburst in Game 5 which went down as a playoff career-high.
He was as proficient getting to his spots as he was in getting stops, shooting 55.1 percent from the field, 53.3 percent from deep, and 90.9 percent from the stripe.
However, it was the manner in which he got said shots off that validated all of the documentation myself and others have highlighted regarding his growth in self creation. From navigating as a ball handler in screens, to attacking from the mid-post, he served as a viable pressure point almost all series—one that there was no game plan for.
Being positioned with all-world talents in Paul and Booker, then even Ayton and his paint presence, Bridges will have free rein in creation as his playoff run continues. The frequency with which he got to his floaters, generated paint touches, and converted his turnarounds was a level of shot making that the elite display from the mid-range.
Whether this effectiveness on this efficiency is sustainable remains to be seen, but it’s been rather obvious that he has the potential to get to that level in time. Having the ability to go off-script, methodically maneuvering to spots advantageous to him, and to consistently execute in that, it’s one amazing luxury to have.
Typically quiet and fun-loving in his approach and mannerisms, we’ve seen Bridges’s demeanor and body language evolve into a more expressive version as well. Built up through the reps and work resulting in subsequent confidence, it all comes out as he displays his development when his number is called.
He more than viably stepped into the third option role in this series, and it was largely responsible for Phoenix taking this one in six rather than seven.
Deandre Ayton Knows His Strengths and Attacks Accordingly
Over the past two weeks, we also saw Deandre Ayton seemingly turn back the clock and play somewhat like his college self. He showed off some assertiveness and versatility as an offensive weapon, coupled with a level of composure and wherewithal that served as a calming presence, allowing the Suns to both dictate and control pace.
The Phoenix big man displayed a level of mental stamina and engagement, in a sustained manner, which was all-impressive. He averaged 20.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game on 70/50/76 shooting.
When Booker went down, he assumed the role of “tone setter,” promptly upping his first quarter averages to 10.3 points per opening frame on 5.8 shots, good for 82.6 percent shooting.
His patience on the catch, awareness of his strengths, and using them as bait to then counter with footwork and soft touch in the post were on full display. The same occurred with his ever-present hook shot, as well as his ball handling and ability to work to his spots.
He quite simply got it done, and then some.
Even past the opening frame, as I’ve loudly proclaimed since last playoffs, his screening remains one of the most key functions in Phoenix’s offense. He shows attention to detail on angles, timing on the hold, and savvy in flipping said angles to put his ball handler in the most advantageous position to leave his primary defender in a trailing position.
He’s one half of the most effective pick-and-roll tandem in the playoffs at the moment. He also just keeps growing on the short-roll as a playmaker both for his teammates and himself.
The space he’s operating in right now is as important as any for the Suns efforts in getting over the proverbial “hump” and not only returning to the Finals, but winning it all. He’s done so much, and looks even better than he did this time last year.
He still carries the effort-type impacts in rim-running at his foundation, but it’s the skill and decisiveness he now displays on the floor that is a key cog in the frequency the Suns have hummed at this season.
Like Bridges though, he brings it on the floor’s other end as well. Those two resemble one of the best pick-and-roll defensive tandems in the league. Bridges’s prolific point of attack and screen navigation combined with Ayton’s activity and versatility allows them to defend effectively against all sorts of combinations.
They recently kept McCollum in check by, in theory, eliminating the effectiveness of New Orleans’ side pick-and-roll game with “Ice,” where Bridges entices the action to stay along the sideline and keep ball handlers away from the middle of the floor.
In “ice,” if the big man is not versatile or fleet-of-foot enough to operate in space, any guard with shiftiness (ie Chris Paul) will split the two and then snake back to the middle of the floor and generate paint touches—rendering the tactic broken time and time again.
But with Ayton being the coordinated athlete that he is, he can thwart that with his feet and active hands, all the while converging and closing the air space as Bridges did so in trailing. Ayton’s versatility away from the porch in the paint is every bit of a weapon that unlocks the Suns defense as any other entity not pertaining to Bridges.
You can see Ayton’s increased understanding, accountability, and communication on the floor. He is, like Bridges, also extremely solid in defending at a high level without fouling.
He dueled Jonas Valanciunas multiple times in the post, or had Pelicans perimeter players driving at him and getting into his body. He was sound in his verticality through it all though, rarely drawing whistles while effectively using his length to contest shots
The discipline and real time recognition consistently on display from Ayton was as welcoming of a sight as any for the Suns in the first round. He finished the series a +4, second to only Chris Paul.
In all, this duo’s compilation of efforts and meshing of dynamics made for a storm the pesky Pelicans could not completely solve. As the Suns advance to the second round with the Dallas Mavericks and their heliocentric approach, centered around all-world talent Luka Doncic, pay close attention to how these two operate.
Booker being back in the fold is a major key, but if the Suns want to position themselves with that highly sought-after chance at a Larry O’Brien again, they’ll need these efforts consistently added to the scheme-breaking exploits that Paul and Booker display each night.