Mikal Bridges has earned a reputation as one of the NBA's top defensive stoppers over seven NBA seasons. During that time, the Brooklyn Nets forward has frequently battled with the league's top scorers.
In a recent interview with Bleacher Report's Taylor Rooks, Bridges opened up on his toughest assignments, breaking down the individual skills that make slowing down each player a monumental task.
Stephen Curry: Off-ball movement
When all is said and done, Stephen Curry will go down as the greatest shooter in basketball history. The Warriors superstar has shot an incredible 42.8 percent from three on 9.0 attempts per game over 15 seasons, passing Ray Allen for the most threes in NBA history last year (with plenty of gas left in the tank).
However, his historic three-point efficiency raises one main question: How do NBA defenses allow him to get open so frequently? In Mikal Bridges' words, Curry never stops moving off the ball, making the stretches when defenders typically relax the most difficult.
“Guarding him off-ball. So many superstar guys when they’re off the ball it’s kind of like they relax. They do all these moves then they’re kind of like, alright, I’ll let the other guy go. If they’re off-ball, they’re really chilling a little bit,” he said. “That makes Steph so much more lethal because you’re so used to saying, ‘Alright I just guarded this dude for 10-12 seconds up at the top of the key and he didn’t get a shot off, thank god.' So he passes the ball and goes away, and the second you take a breath and look to see what’s happening on the other side of the court, you look back and he's gone. And everybody on his team knows it. So you turn and you lose him and you’re starting to chase him and everyone is starting their angles to get him the ball.
“He is just non-stop. He’s the most unique with it’s easier to play on-ball with him because as a defender it’s easier to relax off-ball than off-ball. Because on-ball you’re right here so you see it and have to be engaged. Off-ball, you can relax, and once you do, he’s gone. That’s what makes him so difficult.”
Luka Doncic: Change of pace
Luka Doncic is 24 years old and is already in the running for the NBA's most polished scorer. No player has scored more points over the last four seasons, with the Mavericks star averaging 29.4 per game while shooting 47.5 percent on an astonishing 21.2 shots per night.
Doncic is one of four players averaging 30-plus points per game this season. He has done so with the greatest efficiency of his career, shooting 49 percent from the field and 41 percent from three.
Many NBA viewers find Doncic's masterful scoring surprising given his lack of speed and explosive athleticism, traits that contributed to three teams passing on him at the top of the 2018 draft. However, according to Mikal Bridges, that slow pace of play is at the center of the Slovenian's lethal offensive arsenal.
“Just pace,” he said of what makes Doncic such a difficult cover. “Sometimes you have it or you don’t. Just his body and how he’s built, he can play at that pace. Some guys can’t. He’s strong and wide so he could hold you off. If you’re small and skinny, you can’t really do that because the guy can just get right back.
“The misdirection. Just kind of setting you up to make a move real quick. Like he’ll come back slow, kinda relax, then he’ll come at you real fast. Because he’s not slow. He’s got really good gears of going slow to fast and back to slow to fast again. Guarding that, you gotta be locked in at all times. … He can play slow and he’s just setting you up. Then he’s gonna go fast and as soon as you take a step he might just step back. It’s crazy how much separation he gets off his stepback with how slow he’s going.”
Jayson Tatum: Finishing
Jayson Tatum is establishing himself as an MVP contender early this season, averaging 27.9 points on 50/37/80 shooting splits. The 25-year-old has developed an elite offensive repertoire over six NBA seasons.
Tatum is a marksman at 6-foot-8, shooting 37 percent from three on 8.2 attempts per game over his last five seasons. He consistently dazzles fans with his array of stepback moves. However, he's also shooting a career-high 73 percent at the rim the season, and Bridges said Tatum's growing finishing ability has made him among the league's most challenging assignments.
“As many great things as he does, I think what I take away from him is probably his finishing,” Mikal Bridges said. “He’s crafty. Personally, you play basketball your whole life and you might have an easy layup and you take a step too far and reach for it. He’s smart where he’ll make all these dribble moves and then get to the rim and take one more dribble where he’s already kind of there, so it makes the timing for the guy that’s getting back to block him difficult.
“He’ll get there and you think he’s about to just go lay the ball up or dunk it, then he takes one more dribble to give himself two more steps and lay it in.”
Paul George: Foul-drawing
Paul George has been among the NBA's most consistent scorers over the last decade, averaging 23.4 points per game since the 2013-14 season. That consistency is largely tied to his ability to get to the free-throw line.
The Clippers star has attempted 5.5 free throws per game during the span, the 12th-most among all players, while converting at an 86 percent clip.
“His body movement with the ball. You gotta guard him close because he can shoot. You can’t go under because he’s gonna shoot a three. You gotta be aggressive, but he’s one of those guys where I learned you can’t be too aggressive because then he’s gonna get the foul call,” Mikal Bridges said. “That’s where I really learned I gotta be solid. You can’t really reach. PG is one of those guys where you have to be super solid and make him make tough shots.
“I took from that offensively from guarding a guy like him, knowing any slight mess-up, any little hiccup defensively, he’s gonna know when to get a foul. He just knows. Anytime I kind of put a hand out there, it’s a foul. So now it goes in the back of my head with how many times I’ve guarded him. Now I’m on offense and I’m being aggressive, once I feel that contact it’s gonna be a foul. So learning from guys like that from guarding. I take that from him.”
Bridges applied that knowledge to his expanded offensive role with Brooklyn last season. He averaged 27.7 points in 30 games to close the year, and his ability to draw fouls was central to his consistency.
The first-year Net's 6.9 free throws per game during that span ranked 14th in the NBA. He shot 89.4 percent on those attempts, the league's second-best percentage among 33 players to average 5.5 or more.