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Mikal Bridges embraces his new start with the Knicks

Mikal Bridges has only been here 40 minutes, but it’s a moment he’s been awaiting for what feels like a lifetime.

It’s his introductory press conference at the Knicks’ Tarrytown training facility — a moment that does not normally happen for new Knicks free-agent or trade acquisitions, a moment he hoped would have happened six years earlier on 2018 NBA Draft night — and Bridges is sitting solo at the podium.

In front of him to his left, his mother and Knicks president of basketball operations Leon Rose.

Everywhere else, a swarm of reporters, myriad cameras, an unending line of questions.

Yet Bridges is all smiles.

It’s opposite of the demeanor he boasted during a miserable year-and-a-half in Brooklyn, a stint that unceremoniously came crashing down on his shoulders as the Nets failed to make the Play-In Tournament after trading Kevin Durant to the Phoenix Suns in a deal for Bridges, Cam Johnson and significant draft compensation.

In Dallas, working out with now-former teammate Dorian Finney-Smith, then hanging with a close friend in Memphis Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane, Bridges learned he’d been moved yet again — this time, across the bridge.

“I was actually with [Desmond]. We was chilling by this little lake house and just chilling with his family and stuff. And then the news broke,” Bridges recalled. “It was pretty — I think it was dark outside or something, but it was crazy. It was wild. He’s just over there just screaming from afar, like, ‘Yo! Did you see?’ I’m like, ‘This is crazy,” so it was cool.”

The deal is complete. From black and gray to orange and blue. From chasing lottery balls to hopefully chasing championships.

Five draft picks, a pick swap, a second-round pick, Bojan Bogdanovic, salary cap gymnastics, then ultimately Shake Milton.

The Knicks and Bridges appear to be a perfect match.

He rejoins Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo and, yes, Josh Hart, to complete the Nova Knicks collective, the same group of players who led Villanova to an NCAA title in 2016, then did it again in 2018 after Hart left for the NBA.

Bridges projects to slot into the starting lineup alongside Brunson, OG Anunoby, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson — with DiVincenzo, Hart and Miles McBride coming off the bench — forming a stacked New York roster hoping to compete for a championship.

Championships aren’t new to this group of Nova Knicks, but it’s foreign to an organization that hasn’t won it all since 1973 and hasn’t been to the NBA Finals since 1999.

Bridges doesn’t want to put the cart before the horse.

Yes, the Knicks are now expected to compete with the reigning champion Boston Celtics to represent the Eastern Conference as title contenders, but such an outcome would be decided in May, and these Knicks need to get through September.

“We’re just worried about us right now. That’s the biggest thing. You can’t really worry about other teams,” he said. “It starts in here and starts with everybody in the locker room, coaching staff, medical staff, everybody.

“Like I said, I’ve only been here 40 minutes. I’ve just gotta build here and start from there.”

* * *

It’s a bittersweet moment.

Bridges crossed the bridge, left a fan base yearning for competitive basketball for another yearning to dump on the little brother.

The Nets were far from competitive for a number of reasons last season, but Bridges — the team’s leader  — shouldered the lion’s share of offensive responsibility, and, as a result, a lion’s share of the emotional toll taken by the best player on a poor-performing team.

“Man, just the ability, having the ball a lot. I didn’t play to how I wanted to play. Just learning from that. Last year was a big learning thing,” he said. “I didn’t play as well as I wanted to. Seeing a lot of things, going through that, kind of helps me. You kind of learn and build from mistakes.

“When stuff doesn’t go as well as you want it to, you can’t just look at it and be upset and put your head down. You’ve got to look at it and accept what it was and learn how to grow from it. That’s the biggest thing. When adversity hits you’ve got to use it. You’ve got to use it as fuel, use it as a learning experience. I think that’s what I’m going to do.

“I think I’m saying the right things. My mom’s nodding her head.”

Mikal Bridges of the Brooklyn Nets reacts during the second half against the Memphis Grizzlies at Barclays Center on March 4, 2024 in Brooklyn. (Elsa/Getty Images)
Mikal Bridges of the Brooklyn Nets reacts during the second half against the Memphis Grizzlies at Barclays Center on March 4, 2024 in Brooklyn. (Elsa/Getty Images)

As one chapter in Brooklyn closes, another across the bridge begins.

“It’s tough. I feel like it’s my third team now, and just, wherever I go, I always feel like I build pretty good relationships and it’s never easy to go,” he said. “It was tough. I’ve got a lot of relationships that I’ve built over there. Teammates, organization, everybody. Staff. The year and a half I was there. You know me, I talk to everybody. So I’m pretty close with everybody. It’s sad man, I’m going to miss everybody. But I’m still in the East, so I guess I get to see them [the Nets] a few times.”

Bridges, however, secretly hoped this chapter would begin immediately out of Villanova.

The two teams Bridges wanted to play for — the Knicks and his hometown Philadelphia 76ers — picked ninth and 10th, respectively, in the 2018 NBA Draft.

He was still on the board when the Knicks were making their pick at No. 9.

“The Knicks was [picking at] nine. I was at the draft, and I’m like, ‘I’m going to play at MSG,’ like it’s time. Going to love it there. Me and my agents. My mom everybody knows. Philly was meant to be as well,” he recalled. “It’s just different playing at the Garden, playing for the Knicks. It’s just different. So I thought there was a chance. I really thought I was going.”

It didn’t happen.

The Phil Jackson-led front office selected Kevin Knox out of Kentucky, and the 76ers took Bridges, then traded him to the Phoenix Suns for Zhaire Smith and a first-round pick they later traded for Tobias Harris.

Bridges would head out West. Little did he know how soon a trip back East would come.

“You kind of know when you’re in the green room at the draft when the cameras are following you, or when your agents might get the call a little bit before,” he said, recounting the heart-breaking moment on Tuesday. “And they were up and I just looked at them and they were like, ‘shut the s–t off.”

* * *

The timing couldn’t be better.

Bridges thrived in his role with the Suns, ultimately helping a team led by Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton to an NBA Finals appearance in a 2021 loss to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks.

He expanded his role in a subsequent trade to the Nets, learning what it takes to be a No. 1 scoring option.

He brings both experiences to the Knicks, where Bridges projects to be the No. 3 option on offense alongside two players in Brunson and Randle who have proven capable of commanding double teams, then swinging the ball to the open player.

Last season, before Randle suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, that player was DiVincenzo or Hart, with Anunoby often making plays spotting up or cutting from the corner.

Now, it’s Bridges, a player who has proven capable of creating his own offense while also playing off the ball as a tertiary option.

“I think just, looking at the team last year, I think I fit in really well,” he said. “Just obviously you’ve got two All-Star guys, JB and Julius. How I play basketball, just a good brand of basketball. Know how to make winning plays, play the right way. So I think I fit in pretty well.”

And as for all the championship talk? This team won’t get ahead of itself, even if on-paper, it looks like Bridges is the finishing touch to a team with realistic title hopes.

“Listen man, I have probably been in this building for about 40 minutes,” he said. “I’ve got to get to know everybody. It’s a day-to-day process. Obviously there’s a lot of great teams all over. Got to figure out what we’ve got to do together as a team.”

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