Mikal Bridges of the Nets is guarded by Brandon Ingram...

Mikal Bridges of the Nets is guarded by Brandon Ingram of the Pelicans during their game at Barclays Center on Tuesday. Credit: Errol Anderson

MILWAUKEE — Before the season, Mikal Bridges felt emboldened by the weight on his shoulders. After his breakout stint with the Nets last year, he embraced the challenge of being a leader and focal point of the offense.

As the Nets struggled this season, that burden got heavier on Bridges. He’s delivered clutch moments and dealt with shooting slumps. He’s been criticized by some who expected more after he averaged 26.1 points in 27 games last year following his trade from the Suns.

Bridges has taken it in stride, but it hasn’t been easy. It’s the first time he’s been on a team that will finish under .500 since 2019-20. It’s disappointing for someone who is mostly accustomed to playing on winning teams since college - save for his first two NBA seasons.

“Yeah it’s tough. You just want to win and losing and not playing well isn’t fun,” Bridges said at shootaround Thursday before the Nets faced the Bucks. “But it’s a job. You just got to keep going out there even when times are tough and you’re struggling or whatever."

Bridges mostly keeps his comments brief after games, but he’s voiced his frustrations a few times before. After the Celtics beat the Nets by 50 points just before the All-Star break, he was critical about how the offense struggled and looked confused without Ben Simmons.

When Kevin Ollie was hired as interim coach, Bridges challenged players to be accountable and on the same page to fight down the stretch. He also affirmed his commitment to the Nets and being part of the solution to try and win games.

Yet the losing has continued. Bridges’ shooting woes have as well, as his 43.8% shooting mark remains his lowest since his rookie season.

There’s a good chance Bridges won’t see the playoffs for the first time in four years. For someone who said that was the goal this season, Bridges isn’t satisfied. Yet, he understands there’s still work to do with the play-in tournament still in sight.

"It’s new, but it’s part of the journey. Part of life and something you just got to embrace and you know, take on,” Bridges said.

One thing he has consistently been is available. Thursday was the 501st consecutive game he’s played in, including playoffs, to start his career. It was his 462nd consecutive regular season game.

Thursday was also Bridges’ 70th games this season. The next closest Net is Dorian Finney-Smith, who has played 60 games but was ruled out against the Bucks.

Bridges led the league in total minutes played the past two seasons and logged heavy minutes starting every game for Team USA last summer in the FIBA World Cup. Despite being third in total minutes this season as of Thursday morning, he’s still averaging career-highs in scoring, rebounds and assists.

“It’s incredible,” said Cam Johnson, who’s played with Bridges on the Suns and Nets. “He doesn’t take days off working out, doesn’t take days off when it comes to his recovery. And he’s been working on his game the whole time trying to get better. So I think that needs to be talked about.”

Bridges has always framed his streak in terms of just wanting to play and help the team. But he also attributed it to being disciplined off the court, even when he’s tired from working out.

“I think just having a routine and taking care of my body,” he said. “It could be [tiring] after when you think you just want to relax and maybe sleep all day. But sometimes you just take a couple of hours or just an hour and just take care of your body pretty much.”

Showing up might be part of the battle but it’s tough when the losses add up. Yet, as the frustration grows, Bridges hasn’t wavered from the Nets’ mission of chasing down the Hawks for the final play-In spot.

As the Nets start this four-game road trip, he’s still trusting that work will pay off, even if it hasn’t gone the way he's hoped this season.

“You just got to go out there, make it happen and find a way,” Bridges said.

Notes and Quotes: Thursday is the first meeting between the Nets and Bucks since Dec. 27 when the Nets sat four players and pulled three more after the first quarter. The NBA fined them $100,000 for violating the league’s player participation policy.

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