The NBA never sleeps. Just hours after Kevin Durant’s masterpiece against the Bucks, and before most of the country had gotten out of bed, Chris Paul was placed in the league’s COVID-19 protocols on Wednesday, which could force him to miss the entire Western Conference finals. Paul’s absence is a devastating blow for both the Suns and their 36-year-old leader, who has scratched and clawed his way back to the top only to possibly be denied the chance to compete for a title once again. It also shifts the spotlight in Phoenix to two of the franchise’s young pillars—Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges.
For as great as Paul has been this season, the Suns are far from a one-man team. They have been one of the best stories of the playoffs, knocking out the defending champion Lakers in the first round and sweeping the Nuggets in the second, because they are an almost perfectly constructed roster with waves of talented young players.
Booker is the headliner. The two-time All-Star has flourished in his playoff debut and has been the best player on the floor in multiple games against MVPs and future Hall of Famers. His rise was the real story of their first-round series even though most of the talk focused on the health status of older stars. Booker opened it with 34 points and eight assists in Game 1, and closed it out with 47 points on 22 shots in Game 6. It felt almost cruel, like a fully grown teenager overpowering an elderly parent in a backyard one-on-one game:
He was just as dominant against an undermanned Nuggets team, averaging 25.3 points on 48.6 percent shooting, 7.8 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game in the four-game sweep. The series was over so quickly that the most memorable moment was a brawl in the stands in Denver, with Booker asking for the info of the victorious Suns fan afterward.
There’s no reason to think that Booker can’t keep up his brilliant play without Paul next to him. Phoenix staggered the minutes of its two star guards in the regular season, and Booker thrived as the primary option when Paul was on the bench. That trend has continued in the playoffs:
Booker With and Without CP3
Versatility is the strength of his game. He combines the off-ball game of a traditional shooting guard with the ability to create his own shot and distribute out of the pick-and-roll like a modern point guard. The only other players with both skill sets are Steph Curry and Bradley Beal, who finished 1-2 in the scoring race this season.
Having both abilities, particularly in the playoffs, is important for two reasons. The first is that there’s no “locking up” that kind of player. The Suns can dial up any kind of play they want for Booker. There’s always a way to get him going. The result is the consistency that separates the best scorers in the playoffs, with five 30-point games already.
The second is that it creates room for others to flourish. Booker is the rare young star who doesn’t need to dominate the ball to thrive. He can score by moving and cutting, making everyone around him better in the process. That ability has been a key part of Paul’s success in Phoenix this season, especially compared to his time in Houston, where he was frustrated by James Harden’s refusal to be an off-ball threat. It put a greater strain on Paul, since the defense could focus on him when he had the ball, while also forcing him to primarily be a bystander when Harden did have it. There was only so long the Point God could stand in the corner before he asked out.
Playing with Booker, on the other hand, has been perfect for Paul. He has a costar who can take pressure off of him and allow him to run the offense, and then take over for him and run it when he sits out. Now, with Paul out indefinitely, Booker will need to use his unique brand of magic to make life easier for some of his less-heralded teammates.
One possible source of more offense is Bridges, who has been thriving in a limited role in the playoffs. NBA coaches always talk about players being “stars in their roles.” What that means is that while Bridges doesn’t touch the ball often, good things happen when he does. He’s averaging 12.0 points per game on 44.9 percent shooting this postseason while being sixth in their rotation in touches (33.4 per game) and seventh in average time of possession (0.8 minutes).
The foundation of the third-year wing’s game is his jumper. He shot 42.5 percent from 3 on 4.4 attempts per game in the regular season. But he’s more than just a shooting specialist. He has a high release point (7-foot-1 wingspan) that forces the defense to stay attached to him. That creates openings for him to attack off the dribble, and he’s a smart player who rarely makes mistakes if he has an opening. Either he takes the open shot, dribbles into a higher-percentage look, or moves the ball and finds the open man. The result is an efficiency machine: Bridges shot 54.3 percent from the field, and had an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 3-to-1.
Bridges is a force multiplier in every lineup that he’s in. Most teams just hope their fourth or fifth option can stay out of the way. The Suns can run plays for Bridges without taking the ball from anyone else. And, like Booker, he can succeed running almost any kind of play. These are his numbers from the regular season:
Mikal Bridges Offensive Breakdown
|Play Type||Percentage of Offense||Percentile Leaguewide|
|Play Type||Percentage of Offense||Percentile Leaguewide|
|P&R Ball Handler||3.5||82nd|
He doesn’t have a huge track record of creating his own offense. But a shooter with his length, ability to shoot off the dribble, and basketball IQ can put a lot of pressure on the defense in the right situation. The best chance for the Suns in the Western Conference finals, whether they face the Clippers or Jazz, might be putting Booker in the Paul role and Bridges in Booker’s.
Either opponent will also put the spotlight on Bridges’s elite defense, since he will be the primary defender on Paul George or Mitchell. Bridges is one of the league’s most versatile defenders, with the physical tools to match up with players at all four perimeter positions. He was the highest vote getter not to make an All-Defensive Team and is the tip of the spear of a top-10 defense. There were no off nights for him this season. His top five most frequent assignments were Brandon Ingram, Damian Lillard, Jamal Murray, Luka Doncic, and Stephen Curry. You have to go all the way to no. 17 on the list (Terry Rozier) to find a player who wasn’t a lead option.
That versatility is even more important in the playoffs, where it’s essential to have someone who can match up with every kind of scorer. Few defenders could competently handle his three most frequent assignments so far this postseason: LeBron James, Michael Porter Jr., and Dennis Schröder.
Bridges doesn’t just make those players work. He’s the rare defender who can actually win his matchup in the playoffs. He averaged 16.0 points per game on 53.5 percent shooting against the Nuggets, compared to Porter’s 15.3 points on 38.2 percent shooting.
Few would argue that Bridges has more talent than Porter, his fellow 2018 draftee. But Porter has a long way to go before he can match his peer’s impact, especially given their roles on their respective teams. Porter is a bad defender whom Denver has to hide on that end of the floor, a substantial problem on a team whose two stars (Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray) aren’t stoppers, either. And because the offense runs through those two when they are healthy, Porter doesn’t get as many chances to make up for his defensive shortcomings as he would elsewhere. Bridges, on the other hand, makes his team significantly better on defense regardless of what is asked of him that night on offense.
Playing with Bridges is an incredible luxury for a star like Booker. He’s not an elite athlete. He will never be like Kawhi or Kevin Durant, a primary option who can also guard an opponent’s primary option. He needs a stopper like Bridges next to him. The same dynamic exists for most of the other great young guards in the West, from Luka to Mitchell to Murray. And there’s no one like Bridges on their rosters. So when those stars face Booker in a series, like Mitchell might next week, they are at a disadvantage compared to him. The Suns can throw Bridges at Mitchell and let Booker chill on defense, while Mitchell might have to keep up with Booker on offense and guard him.
The combination of Booker and Bridges gives the Suns a next-generation version of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Forget the brand names and look at the skill sets. It’s not that the Phoenix guards have the same offensive upside as two of the greatest shooters of all time. But an elite on-ball/off-ball offensive threat and an elite 3-and-D wing is a lethal combination. One reason Steph always had an edge on James Harden and Damian Lillard in the playoffs is that Klay would guard them—and they had no one like Klay to guard Steph. Making matters worse, their team also had to find a defender for Klay on top of that.
The beauty for the Suns, regardless of what happens in these playoffs, is that their two star wings are both only 24. Paul was always going to play a small role in their story arc. Booker and Bridges will enter their primes together. That’s a huge advantage in the player empowerment era, when stars usually can’t pair up until their third contracts, when they are nearing 30. The injury risk to older stars, as we have seen in these playoffs, is high. Booker and Bridges have the odds in their favor. They can grow old together. And they will be a problem for the rest of the West for a long time.