Though he publicly called out his team for not playing reliably great basketball, as Monty Williams drove home after the Suns’ loss to the Thunder on Wednesday night, he felt like a “dufus” for how he let his team down.
More specifically, Williams believed he wasn’t holding them accountable for the high level of basketball the team is capable of playing and that they need to play to win.
“Sometimes I have to say things that they may not want to hear but that are the best thing for them,” Williams told reporters this week. “I felt like I let our team down, let our coaches down by not enforcing the kind of play that we saw (against the Warriors).
“I haven’t been enforcing that the way that I typically would, and (Thursday) was all about that. Showing them how we play, how effective it’s been, and to their credit, they came out and executed it.”
After failing to score 100 points against a less-talented Oklahoma City team, the Suns responded with a 21-point beatdown of Steph Curry and the Warriors on national TV and then an inspiring win in Dallas on Saturday.
In both games, the Suns played good defense, limiting their opponent to a 107.2 offensive rating or lower, and moved the ball effectively. The on-court product looked a lot more like typical Suns basketball, and that seemingly derived from the pride the team brought to the court, not only after Williams challenged them but after their star leader called it out.
“We’ve gotta respect who we’re playing against every night,” Chris Paul said. “Respect the opponent. They get paid just like we do.”
When I asked Williams what exactly Paul may have meant by that comment, Williams pointed to consistency. That it’s not enough to come out and play one good quarter or make a few pretty plays to beat NBA teams on a nightly basis. Respecting the opponent and the game is about being dedicated to winning every night and seeing each game out the way it should be.
“When you play the first quarter (against OKC) the way we did and then you look at the second quarter, it looked like two different teams,” Williams said. “That’s a disrespect for the game and your opponent, to think that you can go back out there on the floor and forget what works.
The coaching staff emphasized to the players heading into the OKC game that while the Thunder roster had a lot of journeymen and rookies, they played hard and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Fate seemed to agree with Williams when it was French rookie Theo Maledon who hit a game-sealing layup late to win the game.
“If you’re in the NBA, that means you can hoop, and that’s the mindset we have to have every time we step on the floor,” Williams said.
After that letdown, Williams was impressed with how the team’s film session went the next day and appreciated how the players responded to criticism. Jae Crowder, despite his coach’s willingness to accept blame, largely concurred with Williams that it was on the players to be more consistent. There were adjustments, according to Crowder, that the team needed to do a better job receiving and implementing from the staff.
So while the Suns took care of business in the final two games of the week to go back above .500 and build some momentum as Devin Booker nears a return from his left hamstring strain, the Thunder game (and others like the losses to Detroit or Washington) are instructive of what happens when the Suns let their guard down. Playing inconsistently or lacking discipline has bitten them, even against inferior competition.
In the two wins, the Suns balanced their offense better with more interior scoring and free throws, plus answered the call to be more attentive and energized on defense.
Merely adding more talent to the roster has not made the Suns suddenly great. They are learning the lesson of what playoff teams are in the NBA: flexible, steady, and committed.