Early in November, things were going well for the Phoenix Suns. After a 128-112 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 14, the Suns were sitting at 7-4. From there, everything spiraled out of control.
Now, Phoenix is 26-38 on the season. That’s the third-worst mark in the Western Conference. The Suns are six games out of the eighth seed, and it would take a miracle for them to find their way into the playoffs.
Still, the season didn’t exactly feel over two weeks ago. Beginning with a game against the Chicago Bulls on Feb. 22, the Suns looked as though they had a nice stretch of winnable games coming up. The team took care of business in Chicago, and the Suns even pulled off an upset over the Jazz in Utah two days later.
The next game was a meeting with the Los Angeles Clippers at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Understandably, the Suns ended up losing that one, 102-92. But the next two—home games against the Detroit Pistons and Golden State Warriors? Phoenix absolutely had to win those.
On the year, the Pistons are 20-45. The team is without star Blake Griffin for the remainder of the season, and the front office moved Andre Drummond to the Cleveland Cavaliers at the trade deadline. Meanwhile, the Warriors are even worse, sitting at 15-49. Golden State just got Steph Curry back, but he wasn’t playing against Phoenix.
If the Suns were to win both of those games, the team would have had an outside shot of getting back into the playoff picture. Instead, Phoenix turned in back-to-back embarrassing performances. The Suns lost both games and frustration was at an all-time high.
Phoenix could have folded from that point on, but second-year forward Mikal Bridges had some words for his teammates.
Bridges said, “It’s just a matter of going out there and really wanting it, and that’s what we lacked the past couple games. We’ve gotta, I think, just go home, look yourself in the mirror and see if you really want this, if you really want to win, and if you really want to contribute.”
Bridges hasn’t exactly been a leader on this team since entering the league. He’s only 23 years old, and there are other veterans above him in the pecking order. However, Bridges is one of the only guys in the organization that knows what it takes to win. He was a two-time national champion at Villanova University, and his two-way ability lends itself nicely to winning basketball. Also, for a quiet guy like him to be that frustrated, the comments were likely to get at least some type of reaction from his teammates.
What Happened Next
After those two brutal losses, the Suns came out and lost to the Toronto Raptors. But unlike the previous two defeats, Phoenix actually showed heart. The team just wasn’t able to get the job done against the defending champs. No big deal.
After that loss to Toronto, Phoenix’s early-season form was back on display. The Suns took on the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night, and they ended up blitzing the Blazers early. After the first quarter, Phoenix had a 34-22 lead. The Suns never relented, pulling out a 127-117 victory.
While it was fair to wonder whether or not that performance was a fluke, the Suns came out and earned another win. This one was over a Milwaukee Bucks team that is 53-11 on the season. Sure, Giannis Antetokounmpo was out in that game, but the Bucks were still favored by 6.5 points.
Bridges Rises to the Occasion
Not only is Bridges talking the talk, but the 6-foot-6 wing is also walking the walk. In the win over the Blazers, Bridges had 18 points, five boards and two steals in 39 minutes of action. He followed it up with 21 points and 10 rebounds in 43 minutes against the Bucks. It was the first double-double of his NBA career. And he did all of that while playing his usual brand of lockdown defense on the other end.
On the season, Bridges is averaging 8.7 points, 4 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on 51.4 percent shooting from the floor and 35.4 percent shooting from three. The 23-year-old really struggled with his jumper early in the year, but he has found his stroke over the last few months. A lot of that stems from him removing a noticeable hitch that plagued him early on.
With Bridges now finding his game offensively, he is emerging as one of the best, young 3-and-D players in basketball. He has always been special when it comes to helping his team get stops, but drilling open jumpers is going to help him take his game to the next level. The fact that he is also mixing in some nice drives to the bucket only helps.
On top of that, Bridges finding his voice in the locker room is another nice development. With Kelly Oubre Jr. out with a torn meniscus, the Suns were going to need some more leadership from someone. The fact that it’s coming from Bridges is only an added bonus. He has established himself as a true part of Phoenix’s long-term plans, and it’s going to be exciting to watch him continue to develop.
Meanwhile, it’ll be interesting to see where the Suns go from here. A spot in the postseason might not be likely, but the Suns can help themselves a lot by consistently winning games the rest of the way. This team has been in massive need of a culture change in recent years, and the only way that will happen is if losing is no longer an option inside the locker room. These guys need to hate losing as much as they enjoy winning. It’s clear Bridges already does.