Mikal Bridges entered 2023-24 with All-Star expectations following a career-best 27-game stretch with the Brooklyn Nets to close last season. He showed why during the Nets' 129-102 win over the streaking Orlando Magic on Saturday.
Off the heels of a disappointing loss to the Charlotte Hornets Thursday, Bridges stole the show at Barclays Center against Orlando. The second-year Net scored 34 points in the first half, the most by any NBA player in a half this season. He scored 26 points in the first quarter, the most by any Net in an opening period in the play-by-play era (since 1996-97).
Bridges' defensive performance was equally impressive. His high activity level led a Brooklyn defense that held Orlando to 51 points on 14-of-46 shooting (30.4 percent) in the first half.
Mikal Bridges finished the game with 42 points, three shy of his career-high, to go with five rebounds, three assists, three blocks and a steal. He relentlessly attacked Orlando's defense, setting career-highs in free-throw makes (15) and attempts (18).
“I knew he would be ready to play,” head coach Jacque Vaughn said postgame. “He was as frustrated and disappointed as I was after the Charlotte game. I’ve always talked about, what are the things that make him special? It’s his will to win.”
“At the end of the day, it takes a lot to get yourself ready to play and do the things necessary to win. And most nights you can not just pencil but pen him in that he's going to be available, that he's going to give what he has. So I knew mentally that he was ready to get off to a good start.”
For the season, Mikal Bridges is averaging 22.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.1 steals on 48/36/85 shooting splits. Saturday's showing marks the fifth 40-point performance of his career, all of which have come since joining Brooklyn. He is the seventh player in Nets franchise history with five 40-point games.
Dennis Smith Jr. steps up in return
Dennis Smith Jr. returned to Brooklyn's lineup Saturday after a six-game absence and made an immediate impact. The 26-year-old posted 10 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block in 21 minutes. The performance marks the fewest minutes played in a 10/10/5 game off the bench in Nets franchise history.
Smith Jr. had a simple response when asked how he was able to turn in his best performance of the season after an extended absence:
“I'm a savage,” he said.
Smith Jr.'s return offers Brooklyn's 22nd-ranked defense an elite option at the point of attack. In addition to his high-level defense, the former lottery pick's rebounding and facilitation provided a significant boost for a Nets team down two key contributors in Dorian Finney-Smith and Lonnie Walker IV.
“A sparkplug,” he said when asked what he can offer moving forward. “A good point-of-attack defender for our team. I think that’s important. … Just impact. Rebounds, assists, steals, blocks. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. So I’m just tryna give my team whatever they need. Like I said, be an energy guy.”
After leading by 22 at halftime, Brooklyn fell into dangerous territory, with Orlando cutting the deficit to nine midway through the third quarter. Spencer Dinwiddie responded by scoring nine straight points to regain control for the Nets.
“He understands the moment. He's been there before,” Vaughn said of Dinwiddie's third-quarter burst. “He's one of our seasoned veterans, but at the same time, he can roll off nine [points] in a row and take over a game… I always say, ‘Spencer Dinwiddie is a starting point guard in this League and I enjoy coaching him. He's a competitor. You can pen him in on a nightly basis. He takes care of himself, of his body, and he's ready to play.”
The Nets' win snaps an NBA-best nine-game winning streak for the Magic. Orlando's last loss before the streak also came against Brooklyn during a 124-104 defeat on November 14.
Brooklyn now sits at 10-9 on the season. Vaughn's squad will have three days off before they travel to Atlanta for a meeting with the Hawks Wednesday.