Suns head coach Monty Williams has said a few times this season that the Suns (7-6) is far from solid, and that while they have faced small tests early this season they have not yet faced any real adversity.
“We haven’t been punched in the mouth yet.”
Now with back-to-back losses and heavy injuries mounting, the punch may have landed.
Until this week, the Suns had responded to every loss with a resounding win in their next game. After losing to Denver by one point in game two, they beat the Clippers by 8 on a back-to-back. After losing to the Jazz by one, they beat the Warriors by 11 (and were up by 29 with Steph, Dray and D-Lo all healthy). After losing to the Heat, they beat the Nets by 26. And after losing to the Lakers they beat the Hawks by 16.
“This is a chance for us to grow and respond, and I believe our guys will,” Monty said after that loss to the Heat dropped them to 5-3. “But this is to be expected. That’s where character and integrity should come to the forefront.”
And respond they did, going 4-0 after losses with an average victory margin of 15 points.
“When you have good guys like we have,” Williams said. “You can’t wait to get in the gym and teach.”
Early in this season, the Suns have been relying a great deal on eight-year NBA veterans Ricky Rubio at the point and Aron Baynes at center. Monty Williams leans on them to set the tone on both offense and defense, communicate constantly and hold teammates accountable.
Among their teammates, Rubio and Baynes are 3rd and 4th in scoring, 1st and 4th in rebounds, 1st and 3rd in assists, 1st in steals, 1st in blocks, 2nd and 6th in threes, and 4th and 5th in free throws.
To suddenly lose Rubio minutes before Monday’s game (back spasms) and then Baynes just minutes into it (knee to hip) is a killer that didn’t allow Williams any time to scheme for their losses before the back-to-back.
They talked about responding to Monday’s Celtics loss with a win on the road the next night in Sacramento, but that wasn’t in the cards. Instead, they came out flat and found themselves down by 19 in the first half and more than 20 in the third quarter before whittling the Kings lead down to a possession (116-113) late in the fourth before time ran out on the comeback.
Without Ricky and Aron, the Suns suddenly gave us visions of last year’s squad. Little to no passing, lots of isolation play, wasted possessions on offense and a porous defense.
These two games show that the overall solid play to get to 7-4 and near-locks in projection models to make the playoffs is quite tenuous and currently heavily dependent on their two best veterans to be healthy and to play well.
But still, isn’t this team — even without Rubio, Baynes (and Deandre Ayton and Ty Jerome) — still good enough to compete against NBA teams? They are short at center when Baynes is out and while Ayton is suspended, but Frank Kaminsky (Hornets) and Dario Saric (76ers) have started in a front court in playoff games. Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tyler Johnson, the catalysts of last year’s run, are healthy and have also been in the playoffs before as major contributors. And star Devin Booker is constantly improving as their best player.
Why can’t a lineup of Booker — Tyler — KO — Frank — Dario — Mikal Bridges — rookie Cameron Johnson compete on a nightly basis? Getting down by 20+ to the Kings on Tuesday night was not competing.
They will have to regroup, and find that inner mettle. Any group can do everything that coach Williams asks of his team.
“Play hard, make an effort to defend and try to share the ball,” Williams says of what he likes to see in a team.
Nothing is stopping those remaining players from executing in those areas. Look at the Kings — they’re winning games without their own starting point guard De’Aaron Fox and power forward Marvin Bagley III. Look at Boston — they’re winning games without starting small forward Gordon Hayward.
But the problem is the missing presence of Baynes and Rubio as the team’s best veterans and leaders. Those are the catalysts to execute Williams’ vision on every play. Rubio puts guys in the right spots on offense while Baynes talks constantly on defense to his teammates about what they’re running, where the help is, what side to shadow, etc.
And then in the locker room and practices, they are at it again. Baynes, especially, says he knows exactly what went wrong when they lose. He knows they need to value every possession, not just the big ones. If you fail at too many early plays, that can come back to haunt you.
This depleted Suns team will have to get their act together quickly, with three more games in the next five days starting on Thursday night at home against the Pelicans and then a weekend back to back. With or without Rubio and Baynes, the Suns will have to show their mettle.
“We don’t have a sustained culture yet,” Williams said just last week. “We don’t have a sustained program yet.”
This week is a chance for Booker, Johnson, Oubre, and other veterans to set the tone at practice and make sure every player gives his all on every possession. Too many times on Monday and Tuesday the Suns looked lethargic, unfocused or confused.
“I think it falls on all of the players,” Williams said. “Not just Ricky, Devin and Aron. That’s the easy answer. I think when everybody’s doing something to build the culture and everybody’s contributions are appreciated, I think that builds culture more than 1 or 2 or 3 guys being THE culture drivers.”
They play the struggling Pelicans (5-9) on Thursday night on TNT — the Suns only pre-scheduled national game this year — but then hit the grinder against the Timberwolves (8-6) and Nuggets (9-5) over the weekend.