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Why the Knicks are an ideal fit for Mikal Bridges



Why the Knicks are an ideal fit for Mikal Bridges

TARRYTOWN, N.Y. — Mikal Bridges has seen the jokes.

The New York Knicks’ biggest offseason addition has not missed a game during his six-year professional career. His new head coach Tom Thibodeau would not want it any other way.

Some might call the two a match made in heaven. Insiders know it’s one made in Tarrytown.

Bridges began his career as a 3-and-D slayer for the Phoenix Suns and then became a No. 1 option for the Brooklyn Nets. The Knicks hope to fuse both of those identities, morphing him into a quintessential contributor alongside Jalen Brunson. And yet, for all the talk of Bridges being the perfect fit for the Knicks, the opposite is true, too.

The Knicks appear to be the ideal match for Bridges — and not just for basketball reasons but for personality ones, too.

“Who doesn’t want to play all the time? … I’m fit for that,” Bridges said Tuesday at his introductory news conference. “I know everybody’s seen all the jokes about Thibs, but I’m like y’all must not have been watching me in Phoenix because coach Monty (Williams) would play me 48 minutes.”

Bridges may have been laughing, but he wasn’t kidding. He knows this life.

Thibodeau isn’t as bound to high-minute basketball as his reputation suggests, but he requires his players to maintain their conditioning. “You train your body to do what you want it to do” is a regular Thibodeauian idiom. Playing through pain is a must. Late-night trips to the team’s practice facility in Tarrytown are required.

The injured Knicks embodied that mentality last season when they won 50 games and lost in the second round of the playoffs. Now, they add a like-minded enthusiast to the mix.

Bridges has led the NBA in minutes twice and has finished inside the top four during each of the past three seasons. It’s not easy for him to coast, either. He often takes on the most difficult defensive matchup.

Williams once played Bridges for 50 minutes during an overtime victory over the Sacramento Kings. If that wasn’t exhausting enough, Bridges guarded human firecracker De’Aaron Fox.

“Y’all know how fast (the Kings) play, and I was sick. I was sick as a bat,” Bridges said. “Literally out there, couldn’t breathe, and I played 50-something minutes. I was on a frickin’ chair after we won, laid out, and I think Monty didn’t think I was sick either. And he was like, ‘Look at him. That’s what we do.’ I’m like, let’s just get on this damn plane.”

Long before arriving in Manhattan, Bridges already moved as the Knicks did.

The Knicks finalized their trade for Bridges over the weekend, officially sending four unprotected first-round picks, a protected first-rounder, a first-round swap, a second-rounder, Bojan Bogdanović and Shake Milton to the Brooklyn Nets for Keita Bates-Diop, a second-round pick and the player they deem the final piece of what could be a contender.

Bridges will join a supersized first unit that includes Brunson, OG Anunoby, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson. He can spot up alongside the team’s best creators. He can run the reserves. The Knicks could use him in mega lineups or small ones, where his and Anunoby’s defensive chops would allow the group to stifle ballhandlers on the perimeter, even if there is no conventional rim protector behind them.

“I think it’s not going to be that hard (to fit in), honestly,” Bridges said. “I think it’s just knowing the brand we play here. And playing the right way is who I am. It’s a natural thing.”

Bridges provides the versatility the Knicks yearned for — and the type they will require to compete with the defending champion Boston Celtics, who stack rangy wing on top of rangy wing. But the Knicks also provide a new context for him.

In Phoenix, Bridges was a fourth option behind Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. He camped in the corner, slicing to the basket when defenders helped off him or splashing in 3s when passes flung his way. He became one of the league’s most efficient scorers. But once the Nets acquired him in the trade that sent Kevin Durant cross-country, his responsibilities ratcheted up.

Bridges became the focal point of Brooklyn’s offense — and at times, he proved he could run the show. Bridges dropped a career-high 45 points on 24 shots during just his third game with the Nets and averaged 21.2 points during his season and a half with the organization. But his efficiency sunk this past season.

“Last year was a big learning thing. … You kind of learn and build from mistakes,” Bridges said.

The Knicks can offer him an expanded offensive role from what he experienced in Phoenix but — thanks to Brunson, Randle and other capable scorers — one without the burden he had to carry in Brooklyn.

What makes the Knicks better will often make Bridges look good, too.

New York now employs the NBA’s possible best defensive wing duo in Bridges and Anunoby. Both can enhance the other. For example, Philadelphia 76ers star Tyrese Maxey gave the Knicks fits during this past spring’s playoffs, when Anunoby and others tag-teamed him. Now, when they go up against a team with a feisty small guard, Anunoby can battle with the larger forward — in this case, Paul George — as Bridges mans a spark plug, such as Maxey.

The opposite will hold, too. Bridges won’t need to body up a burlier big with Anunoby around. Josh Hart can step in, as well.

New opportunities await for a second unit that struggled to score this past season. The Knicks squirmed to find a leader of their reserve lineups, someone who could take over when Brunson rested. Miles McBride, the backup point guard only nominally, can drain 3s and guard other smalls, but the team views him as more of a spot-up wing stylistically.

Because of that, the Knicks have searched for players who fit a specific mold to join their bench: Someone capable of facilitating on one end while guarding larger perimeter players on the other. Such was the logic of their midseason trade for Alec Burks and Bogdanović, who could each create their shots but were not technically point guards. Both fell flat.

But the Knicks could rejigger that strategy during the upcoming season, plugging Bridges into mostly bench lineups that would include McBride, Hart and Donte DiVincenzo, a potential NBA Sixth Man of the Year favorite.

Staggering Bridges and Brunson, ensuring that at least one is on the court at all times, could do wonders for New York’s two-time All-NBA forward, as well. The Knicks could match Randle’s minutes with Brunson’s, which would allow Randle to play off his point guard when he is less prone to stagnant basketball.

What’s best for the Knicks could be best for Bridges, too.

In those moments, Bridges’ improved playmaking can reveal itself. He’ll be fighting against backups, a role he’s excelled in before. The Nets would use him with the second unit. But now, he’s less likely to experience the same aggressive double-teams that came his way in Brooklyn.  At least two knock-down shooters, DiVincenzo and McBride, will flank him. Hart is another playmaker and a transition fiend.

No matter who Bridges plays with, the Knicks can bust out pieces of the DiVincenzo playbook for him, ones that send a shooter around a screen from the corner up to the wing, a move Bridges found success with as an initiator in Brooklyn. Those screens could open him up for spot-up 3s. He could curl around them, then venture downhill. He can attack closeouts, armed with a smooth game from the short midrange or the chance to pass out for a 3.

“It’s kind of like going to (Team) USA, kind of the same thing where obviously, going to USA last year, the role’s going to change,” Bridges said. “I adapt pretty fast. Listen, I just want to win. I know the things I’ve got to do to help us win and I’m excited.”

Bridges says he first learned about the trade to the Knicks while vacationing at a Texas lake house with a couple of buddies: Nets wing Dorian Finney-Smith and Memphis Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane.

“(Bane) was just over there, just screaming from afar, like, ‘Yo! Did you see?’ ” Bridges said. “I’m like, ‘This is crazy.’ ”

The craziness did not stop there.

Moments later, amidst a blowup of text messages and calls, one worthwhile FaceTime request came in, a ring from three former teammates who were about to play alongside Bridges once again.

Bridges, Brunson, DiVincenzo and Hart earned a national championship together at Villanova. Eight years later, they will try for a title in New York. The trio of Nova Knicks, now a quartet, had to initiate its newest member with a celebratory chat.

“Everybody was just geeked up,” Bridges said.

And why shouldn’t they be?

Bridges has to move only across the East River (if he even wants to do that). He has a coach who thinks the same way he does, a locker room that already knows him and a basketball situation built to enhance his game.

It’s a match made in Tarrytown.

(Photo of Mikal Bridges: Mike Stobe / Getty Images)

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