Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams is fond of saying, "Everything you want is on the other side of hard." It's his way of conveying to his team that they will only achieve their goals through hard work, not shortcuts and a lack of discipline.
But left unsaid in that tidy little maxim is what else lies on the other side of hard, and the Suns are presently learning it's no strawberry festival.
Phoenix has won two of its last eight games after starting the season at 7-4, and both wins could just as easily have been losses. Their 100-98 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Nov. 23 saw them shoot 34.4 percent from the field — just the sixth time in franchise history the Suns have won while shooting that poorly. Their 109-104 triumph over the Charlotte Hornets tonight, meanwhile, was the epitome of a gift, with Phoenix outscoring the Hornets 12-0 in the final 1:11 as Charlotte took aim squarely at its own foot.
The Charlotte game, oddly enough, serves as a perfect microcosm for Phoenix's season so far and as an explainer for what lies on the other side of hard. The Suns built a 20-point lead by halftime against a Hornets squad that is the basketball team equivalent of a Mr. Potato Head assembled with discarded Barbie parts. Things looked promising, and a blowout to start the four-game road trip appeared probable. But the game didn't get easier. Instead, while the Suns were content to treat the second half as academic, jacking up threes and eschewing defense, the Hornets came out in the second half focused and whittled Phoenix's lead away until it vanished completely. The Suns didn't get to cruise; they logged heavy minutes because an embarrassed team was waiting for them after halftime.
The same trend has played out more broadly. While most of the NBA was easing into the regular season like an old man into a warm bath, the Suns came out ready to prove a point, throwing haymakers at every chin they could find. They caught a few unsuspecting teams that thought they were playing the Suns of last year's record and, in doing so, gained some early hype.
That hype woke up the league. In gaining respect, they also gained tougher, more focused opponents. They're not playing teams content to roll the ball out expecting to win; they're facing teams also looking to prove points, with a haymaker or two of their own thrown in for good measure.
Over this eight-game stretch, Phoenix's opponents are shooting 47.5 percent from the field, 38.2 percent from 3, and averaging 25.9 assists and 115.1 points per game. In the 11 preceding games, those same numbers were 45.9 percent, 33.9 percent, 23.7 assists, and 110.5 points. This defensive slippage is attributable, at least in part, to Phoenix's injuries and teams settling in, but it's undeniable that the team hasn't defended with the same activity it did to open the season; coach and players alike cop to it.
It's the deleterious effect of early success. A letdown, if you will.
The offensive end has also seen regression, with Phoenix shooting 44.1 percent from the field, 32.3 percent from 3, and averaging 26.1 assists and 110 points per game over the last eight compared to 47.5 percent from the field, 38.8 percent from 3, 28.8 assists, and 117.6 points over the first 11.
You see, it's common to think that the other side of hard is easy, like trudging to the top of a snowy hill and sledding down the slope for your effort. But in sports, the metaphor is closer to hiking to the top of a difficult mountain, only to learn it's just the first in an entire mountain range. On the other side of hard...is more hard.
This is where we learn what this team is made of. The Suns conquered their first mountain; they earned respect and notice around the league. Their next mountain is to prove they were no flash in the pan, no hare against the tortoise, no fat and happy Rocky from Rocky III. Do they want more? Will they embrace the increasingly difficult path that accompanies it? Or are they happy with the quasi-relevance of mediocrity?
Because everything they want is on the other side of hard, but that doesn't mean hard ever goes away.