As time swiftly dwindled away in the Phoenix Suns’ painstaking 120-100 Game 3 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Monty Williams sat side-by-side with Devin Booker near the scorer’s table and engaged in a heart-to-heart talk with the young superstar.
Booker — who’d put up a noticeably porous stat-line — had been shelved for the night late in the third quarter by Williams in efforts to preserve his minutes in lieu of a crucial Game 4 on Wednesday.
The aforementioned stat-line: 10 points and six boards on a horrid 3/14 mark from the field, and 1/7 from deep.
It was a surprising output from the 24-year old All-Star, who collected playoff career lows in minutes (29), points and 3-point percentage. Booker is a scorer by trade — a marksman with a calm demeanor and ease of fluidity who’s established himself as a one of the premier scoring threats in the game.
And when the lights are brightest, Booker has generally been at his best. He put on a stellar show of spectacular feats during last year’s bubble run, and has been nearly unconscious (save for a few instances) through 2021’s postseason, posting averages of 26.3 ppg, 6.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists in just above 40 minutes per contest. He’s also sporting a .488 effective field goal percentage, and lighting up the charity stripe at a 90% clip.
Not to mention: eight games of 30 points or more (including a 47-point outburst to close out the Lakers) and four double-doubles.
So to see him falter so drastically in comparison to his normal productivity had to be particularly troubling to the Suns camp as the Bucks’ surged past them, and breathed new life in this series.
Devin Booker on the key to bouncing back from a poor shooting night: "Short memory. Just move on. I've been there before, so just understanding that."— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) July 13, 2021
But Williams remained free from worry — keeping the confidence in his young stalwart at a premium heading into their next affair.
“Just talking to him about the game, the kind of force we have to play with, just normal stuff,” Williams said abut the conversation he had with Book following his rough night.
“This is one of those games that you typically, in NBA-speak, say, ‘Flush it.’ But you can’t in the Finals. We’ve got to watch the film and learn and get back to playing our kind of basketball consistently. We saw it in spurts. Just didn’t have enough of it tonight to hold them off and maintain any level of consistency. Usually, when we play with a great deal of force and edge, the consistency follows. We just weren’t consistent with that tonight.”
“Normal stuff” alludes to the consistent style of tutelage Williams uses with his athletes.
He’s the consummate uplifter — employing an encouraging, but firm style of instruction as he guides his unit — and his approach is unmoving; be it towards a seasoned vet like Chris Paul, or newcomers like Ty’Shon Alexander and Jalen Smith.
Williams doesn’t bash, he doesn’t boast, and his leveled disposition of poise, balance and unifying contagiousness has been an underrated driver of these Suns as they’ve scorched through the year.
Take his response to ESPN’s Malika Andrews after she inquired about Booker’s slow start following the first quarter. When asked what he would say to Book about his struggles, Williams responded: “nothing, I don’t want to get into his head at all. Devin will be okay.”
D-Book was in fact not okay. He continued to find iron as he desperately searched for a breakthrough through the contest — a quest that netted the opposite of gold once it was completed.
And if Williams had any ounces of fret in his mind after Book’s performance, it failed to show in his body language — or in the words he used to describe his conversation with his talented shooting guard.
One has to believe that Williams’ “Devin will be okay” quote holds an enduring relevance as this series wears on. The NBCA Coach of the Year knows he will need his top-flight playmaker if his team has any chance of closing the door on the sprightly Bucks, and Book will be far less effective if his coach limits his opportunities.
That’s unlikely to happen.
Book wasn’t the only force who was rendered less effective in Game 3.
Deandre Ayton — who’s cemented his name among big-man greats for his efficient masterpieces in these playoffs — was relegated to a shell of himself after amassing five fouls in 24 minutes of run, forcing Williams to preserve his minutes to avoid a DQ.
Ayton has truly lived up to the “dominant” label that makes up his “Dominayton” nickname during the postseason, but he’s found treachery in the waters as of late.
Game 3 highlighted a point of emphasis in the fouls category (although he was virtually unstoppable offensively prior to those issues).
In Game 2 though, his ability to find the basket was severely impaired as opposed to his normative ease.
And it was noticeable, even for the fans. But instead of lambasting him with charges for betterment, or pointing out his wrongdoings, Monty Williams had this to say late in the fourth quarter:
It was just the formula the bustling Bahamian needed, and Ayton didn’t hesitate in showing his coach appreciation for the speech.
“I didn’t play the way I wanted to play, especially trying to finish around the rim,” he said.
“I didn’t rebound the way I wanted to rebound. It kind of got to me a little bit, but I kept playing through it and kept finding what I could do best for my team. I had my emotions on my shoulders a little bit and he (Williams) stopped me, because he knows me and he wanted to tell me a word of encouragement and it got me going.”
Ayton recorded two points, two steals, a block and three rebounds — including a huge offensive board that Chris Paul called the “play of the game” after Williams lit a fire under him.
Game 4 will certainly be one of adjustments for the Suns head coach.
He’ll have a number of focus points to batten down. Phoenix needs to ramp up its 3-point shooting, limit its turnovers, and figure out the Frank Kaminsky fiasco.
The most pertinent attribute that will boost PHX to its ever-coveted title though, will be Williams’ moxie, poise and ability to instill confidence into his players.
And based on his statements about D-Book, that’s exactly what he’s going to keep doing.
“He’ll bounce back.”