Playoff Lessons: Mikal Bridges Is Learning To Adapt To Life As A Primary Scorer

In the first half of his first playoff game as a team’s primary scorer, Mikal Bridges logged the second-most shots of his postseason career with 16. By the end of the Philadelphia 76ers’ four-game dispatching of his Brooklyn Nets, Bridges hoisted 77 shots and averaged 23.5 points on 53.9 percent true shooting.

The 26 year old’s introduction to playoff basketball as an offensive pillar ebbed and flowed. His moments of stardom were balanced with moments of struggles and frustration. Philadelphia flung an array of coverages at him defensively. Brooklyn’s ancillary personnel were limited. Bridges witnessed all of this and rode the roller coaster of volatility. As he and the Nets approach his first full season commandeering the foremost scoring load, there’s much to glean and apply moving forward from those four playoff outings.

To open Game 1, the Sixers elected to lock and trail Bridges with Tobias Harris while keeping Joel Embiid in drop coverage. Brooklyn schemed many of his touches on the move and he took advantage of the defensive gambit en route to 23 points on 10-for-16 shooting before intermission.

His mid-range pull-up is the bedrock of his prolific scoring leap. He reminded everyone of that throughout the first round whenever Philadelphia failed to curb his airspace and chase him over the top of screens. Grant him room between ~4 and ~16 feet, and he’ll bury you. He’s a killer scorer if he finds his midrange groove and can render middling drop coverage a liability (not all of these clips are drop coverage, but the circumstances of drop coverage remain).

As the series progressed, however, the Sixers shifted away from lock and trail and drop against Bridges. The change began as quickly as the second half of Game 1 and played a significant role in him scoring just seven points on two shots after the break. They switched and trapped him more frequently and shaded strong-side help or stunted on his interior endeavors to exploit his tenuous handle and unthreatening burst. Harris top-locked him and twisted his rhythm ajar via physicality. Addressing that aversion to physicality will be vital.

Bridges wasn’t a lost cause trying to score against switches because he’s so adept operating off-balance. But he encountered far less vacant real estate to generate clean looks from midrange, which is a primary reason for his quiet second half in Game 1 and 47.5 percent true shooting over the final three contests. He has to become less susceptible to being mitigated by switches and let his off-balance shot-making be a feature not the norm.

Brooklyn must also build a roster better suited to expose defenses for trapping him. The lack of surrounding ball-handling depth hinders him as both an on and off-ball scorer. He should be empowered to blend the old and the new of his repertoire.

Growing as an off-the-bounce shooter beyond the arc would vary his pull-up attack and transition away from such reliance on the midrange for his creation. Following his move to the Nets, 9.5 percent of his field goals were pull-up threes during the regular season. In the playoffs, that mark perked up to 11.7 percent. Across 31 appearances with Brooklyn, he knocked down 40.4 percent (23-for-57) of his pull-up triples.

If the goal is to expand the possibilities within the midrange itself, tightening his handle and establishing more comfort probing inside or near the paint would broaden his options. Plenty of his drives spiraled against the Sixers because of well-timed stunts disrupting his handle and revealed an erratic “shot or bust” mentality. Refining his pacing and applying his sinewy, flexible frame to decelerate downhill without reaching a full stop would behoove his game.

It’s obviously much more arduous for a 6’6 wing to incorporate that probing prowess than guards. Yet the ability to snake ball-screens and survey the opposition while remaining a scoring presence — opening up the floor for shooters and rollers — would considerably elevate Bridges’ initiator potential. Methodical tempo and newfound handling of physicality can accomplish that.

The most encouraging part of his first-round showing was the real-time development. In the later stages of the series, he seemed to maintain a live dribble more often to preserve chances beyond a shot for himself. Although skip passes are still a pretty wobbly adventure that he must refine, particularly because the Nets tout plenty of credible off-ball shooters who occupy the corners, his willingness to get off the ball in a timely fashion evolved.

Streamlining those flashes of a wily cadence and patient playmaking into consistent sequences should be the priority. His chemistry with Nicolas Claxton and Cameron Johnson are boons as well, and I’m particularly intrigued to track the headway he achieves with Claxton next season.

I’ve long recognized some parallels between Bridges and Khris Middleton offensively. One of the relevant distinguishers, though, is Middleton’s face-up and mid-post scoring. Wielding the requisite footwork and release, he’s stable, potent, and at home there. I’m left wondering whether Bridges could integrate that into his wheelhouse as a means of creation. It’d station him in the midrange without demanding he venture there on his own or holster a live dribble.

Middleton’s strength advantage and shrewd use of his frame are currently the crucial differentiators. They circle back to Bridges’ discordance playing slowly inside the arc off the bounce and need to effectively brandish his size more regularly. If he could function in the midrange without spotlighting his creaky handle, that could quell some concerns. He struggles to leverage his frame and protect his dribble simultaneously.

This is his first offseason working through the lens of primary scorer responsibilities, which presumably warps his training habits and goals to prepare for a different role than prior years. He thrives off of midrange volume. Philadelphia curtailed some of his avenues to operate in the midrange. Maybe he embeds another dimension to produce from his haven.

In a matter of months, Bridges bounced from complementary role player on a team with title aspirations to star scorer on a team staving off the Play-In Tournament. That’s a monumental transition and one he, by and large, handled masterfully. The swiftness and challenge of the change cannot be discounted.

As a result, his playoff landscape was completely rearranged. He’d barely been afforded time to respond to regular season defensive adjustments as the focal point, let alone postseason alterations. The growing pains were expectedly harsh during the final 3.5 games of round one. Every tactic the Sixers employed should help inform how he adapts and continues diversifying his offensive portfolio in the coming years. The playoffs teach lessons. Bridges received quite the detailed, beneficial lesson across a week’s span this past April.