As the Suns returned home last week to take on the Warriors in their final game heading into the All-Star break, the team put a lot of pressure on itself to get a win, though head coach Monty Williams emphasized he didn’t put more weight in that game than any of the others he desperately wanted to win all season long.
That much is clear. These Suns want to win. Still. After fans have started to move on from dreams of the playoffs; even after the Memphis Grizzlies hit the gas pedal hard to create distance in the race for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
They did in fact pull out a win over Golden State last Wednesday, and while the attention was on Devin Booker and what would become his All-Star appearance, the victory gave Phoenix its most wins in a season since the 2016-17 season.
“Going into the break, that’s a good stepping stone for us to build off of,” Booker said.
Toward what, you might ask. The postseason is almost out of reach. But despite Memphis running away with the eighth seed, Booker was not waving a white flag. No one is.
Take the past two months. Just after the calendar flipped to 2020, Williams inserted Deandre Ayton into the starting lineup next to Aron Baynes, a move he said was made solely about winning games. That’s not to mention the continued fluctuation of the guard rotation in an effort to find the right combo, or the heap of playing time he’s giving Suns starters lately.
Ayton has now played 40 or more minutes in 4 of his last 8 games.— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) February 9, 2020
While general manager James Jones said on his weekly radio spot on The Burns & Gambo Show on Tuesday that he expected Ayton, Baynes and Dario Saric to return to the lineup on Friday in Toronto, what Williams did in playing his main guys unfathomable minutes shows the desperation to win.
There were other options. Two-way player Tariq Owens made his debut in Milwaukee before Williams said he didn’t feel like it was “fair” to put Owens in a bad situation without knowing the system or his teammates fully yet. Owens was nowhere to be seen on the court after that. Mikal Bridges played center. Sometimes, there were four guards on the floor at once. Everybody accepted discomfort as they tried desperately to string together wins and make up ground for a playoff spot.
Heading into the All-Star break, we also saw Williams adapt his game plan strongly from game to game, something coaches and players can’t always cope with during the regular season. Against Houston’s new super-small approach, the Suns tried several coverages against James Harden and had Ayton (who said he thanked Williams for the change) aggressively slip screens to put pressure on the rim. Playing Denver two nights later, Ayton was even more of a focal point of the offense, as Williams asked his players to emphasize taking open threes and playing more in transition to take advantage of Nuggets center Nikola Jokic.
Again, not the types of adjustments a team ready to fold would make. These Suns want to win.
Still, it’s not clear when that win-at-all-costs approach ends. Being healthy will help minutes go back down, is there a point at which the emphasis becomes on development over victories? Cameron Johnson saw his minutes dwindle before his injury in January, while Ty Jerome still has not become a consistent part of the rotation. Fellow rookie Jalen Lecque spends most of his time in the G League. The Suns won’t break from the system they’ve built over the course of the year, but adding new faces and new possibilities to it could be helpful long-term.
At the same time, this year has been about turning a page. Culture is the first word in the dictionary of Jones and Williams, and emotionally packing up and leaving at the All-Star break is antithetical to a winning culture. That was how things were done before, but not now.
These Suns want to win. No one complained about the minutes; no one refused any of the more complex game plans. The rookies are still getting better, even if they haven’t been on the floor a ton.
At some point, the Suns will turn the page on the competitive part of the season and experiment a bit more. Every team does it. Just don’t expect it soon. Every game is equally important, and every game is winnable. That’s not how it was always done in Phoenix, but that’s how it is now.