On Wednesday night, in his third appearance as a member of the Brooklyn Nets, Mikal Bridges floated, darted, and bobbed his way to a career-high 45 points in a 116-105 win over the Miami Heat and their fifth-ranked defense. Only 19 players have scored more than that in a game this season. He shattered his previous career-high of 34 and did so on a preposterously efficient 83.1 percent true shooting.
His performance was the latest in what has been a breakout scoring campaign. After averaging a career-high 14.2 points in 2021-22, Bridges is up to 17.6 points in 2022-23. Seven of his 10 highest regular-season scoring games have occurred this season.
The 23 points he scored in Saturday’s narrow home loss to the Philadelphia 76ers and 45 from Wednesday are not solely the product of newfound opportunity in Brooklyn. He tallied at least 21 points in each of his final six games with the Phoenix Suns and 11 of his last 13. Over his past 18 games, including three with Brooklyn, he’s averaging 22.7 points on 60.4 percent true shooting.
Phoenix entrusted him with a grander slice of the creation pie this season, both to accentuate his development and because Devin Booker and Chris Paul missed extensive time. The Suns presumably wanted to unearth another perimeter handler, tap into Bridges’ potential to be that guy, and avoid the offensive pitfalls of their last two playoff defeats, when far too much of the burden rested on Booker’s shoulders amid Paul’s scoring decline.
Before the trade, a career-high 29 percent of his shots were unassisted, according to Cleaning The Glass. He ran more pick-and-rolls, nestled himself into midrange pull-ups from the wings, and sought mismatches inside via post-ups or deep seals.
Those trends have continued in Brooklyn. Thirty-eight percent of his field goals are unassisted through three games. Without Paul or Booker around, as well as someone like Deandre Ayton inside to release pressure — Nicolas Claxton is excellent, but in a much different manner — Bridges is assuming an even bigger ball-handling role. Outside of Spencer Dinwiddie, nobody else in the Nets’ starting lineup creates as often as Bridges. Even when you expand that out to the entire rotation, only Cam Thomas joins Dinwiddie above him, and he’s a reserve playing 20ish minutes a night. Head coach Jacque Vaughn also intends to grant Bridges the requisite ball-handling latitude.
Jacque Vaughn says the Nets “really believe” that Mikal Bridges can run the offense and run pick-and-roll. Adds they want to see more of it.
— Matt Brooks (@MattBrooksNBA) February 13, 2023
Not all of this is solely about the autonomy Bridges’ teams are presenting him. Individually, he’s become much less tepid and amped up his aggression. There’s a diligent assurance in how he hunts shots now, far less wired to solely finish plays or keep the ball movement flowing. When something is schemed for him or he senses a crease, he strikes. A career-high 33 percent of his field goals are pull-up jumpers, a substantial spike from last season’s career-high of 24.5 percent. Those numbers are nearly identical pre- and post-trade as well — it was at 33 percent as a member of the Suns and it is at 34 percent during his short time in Brooklyn.
One of his more notable limitations as an initiator is his handle. A bit loose and robotic, it poses issues in traffic and hinders his driving game. To counter those shortcomings, Bridges has maximized the scope of his 6’6 frame and 7’1 wingspan. He spirals around defenders and reaches where he wishes to venture. He surveys the floor before attacking. His 7.5 drives per game blow past last season’s career-high of 4.4. A year prior, he was at 3.5. He’s more than doubled that clip in the span of two seasons, an indicator of his heightened assertiveness.
Given his physical tools, midrange comfort, and elevated release point, bothering his intermediate pull-ups is quite challenging. He’s also dishing out some physicality rather than being neutralized by it offensively. The blueprint for virtually everything he’s doing with the Nets arose in Phoenix this season. It’s merely referred to more often nowadays.
Bridges’ budding creation is so encouraging because none of it has silenced his longstanding off-ball prowess. Ten of his 17 makes on Wednesday came via assists. He’s still a premier and perceptive cutter. On the break, his length and keen recognition of space overwhelm defenders en route to layups or dunks. When someone else commandeers the half-court offense, his spot-up prowess (40.7 percent on catch-and-shoot triples this season) ensures he remains a prominent threat. If defenses fully commit to prevent his quality outside looks, he’s similarly adept burning closeouts. In a series of words that keep popping up: The Suns utilized all of these traits for years. Early on, the Nets are doing the same. He’s routinely fashioning easy chances.
Bridges is 26 years old. His prime is just beginning. Brooklyn, as currently constructed, is not a title contender. Yet it’s easy to envision a world where he slots in as a malleable secondary or tertiary offensive option for a championship-caliber club. Once almost exclusively confined to cutting, transition reps, and off-ball shooting in the NBA, has proven that he’s a bona fide second-side creator this season.
And of course, while all of this analyzes the steps forward he’s taken as an offensive player, there is also the fact he’s the reigning Defensive Player of the Year runner-up and one of the league’s foremost perimeter stoppers. Bridges has struggled throughout various points of his last two playoff runs because of timid offensive touches and certain matchups mitigating his defensive impact (see: Doncic, Luka).
Both events could transpire again, but he seems much better prepared whenever that next go-round comes, which could be as soon as two months away — while the Nets traded away two All-NBA caliber player, they currently are 2.5 games up on the 7-seed in the Eastern Conference, six games up on the 9-seed, and 8.5 games ahead of the 11-seed with 24 games left this season. They might not need the play-in tournament to earn a postseason berth, but if they do, they will almost certainly get two shots (if needed) to secure a spot in the playoffs.
Bridges’ offense bloomed this year in Phoenix. The franchise clearly believed in his eventual stardom and wanted to facilitate its arrival. His new team evidently feels similarly and is providing him the runway to actualize it. The norm certainly won’t be 45 points moving forward. But Wednesday’s dominance was an apt summation of his strides and the possibilities that lay head as he helps usher in this era of Brooklyn basketball.