PHOENIX — Missing Devin Booker and with the New Orleans Pelicans applying heavy pressure to Chris Paul, the Phoenix Suns got a historic effort from Mikal Bridges to take back control of their first-round NBA playoffs series with a 112-97 Game 5 victory for a 3-2 lead.
Bridges had perhaps the best offensive and defensive game of his career as he finished with 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting with four blocks and a steal. With the Suns desperate for improved 3-point shooting, Bridges made all four of his attempts. Then there was his on-ball defense: The Pelicans were just 1-of-14 shooting when Bridges and his long arms and relentless effort contested their shots, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking. And he played all but 66 seconds of the game.
“We put him [Bridges] on everybody,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We can’t clone him, but we wish we could. And he has the energy to score offensively, too.”
Bridges finished the game with two emphatic dunks, showing no sign of any fatigue, an energy flow vital for the Suns. Booker missed his third consecutive game due to a hamstring injury, and the Pelicans came into the game looking to test Paul and his left hand.
Paul missed time earlier this season because of a left thumb injury and appeared to injure a finger on the same hand in the second quarter of Sunday’s Game 4 loss. He didn’t score in that game after the first quarter. He taped several fingers together Sunday and then did so again Tuesday as the Pelicans played him hard on his right side and tried to force him to go left. They also pressured him full court, a tactic used throughout the series.
Williams said Paul was fully healthy but that he altered his game plan to ease some of the burden on the veteran point guard. The plan called for Paul bring the ball up the floor less to conserve energy and dodge double-teams the Pelicans used in force in Game 4. Paul, who has a history of hand and wrist injuries, showed little sign anything bothered him as he scored 16 of his 21 points in the first half to help the Suns establish a lead.
“Seventeen years, same thing,” Paul said of the Pelicans’ strategy. “I’ve been playing for a long time. It’s what most teams go to, to pick you up full court and do all this different stuff.”
The Pelicans might need to come up with a game plan to manage Bridges in Thursday’s Game 6. He was a vital cog in everything the Suns did as he took his second-most shots in a game this season. The Suns also found themselves in foul trouble with Cameron Payne and Jae Crowder limited, expanding Bridges’ role even further.
“Just playing hard, that’s the biggest thing. Just playing hard and playing for each other,” Bridges said.
Bridges played more against Pelicans star Brandon Ingram than any other time in the series, and Ingram was just 1-of-4 shooting with Bridges defending him. Ingram scored 22 points but missed 12 of 19 shots. Bridges also smothered CJ McCollum, who was 1-of-9 with Bridges on him. McCollum had 21 points but missed 15 of 22 shots and is shooting just 37% in the series, and Bridges has been the biggest reason for it.
But perhaps the most impressive way to put Bridges’ performance in context was this: There have been just seven players in history to have a 30-point game with four 3-pointers and four blocks, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“Wow,” Bridges said when he was shown the list, “that’s crazy.”