After the Phoenix Suns lost Game 4 of the NBA Finals by blowing a nine-point fourth quarter lead, which was still a three-point lead (95-92) with 3:41 remaining in the game, Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams knew his team needed a pep talk.
When he tried to look in his players’ eyes, he saw nothing but the tops of their heads as they slumped at their lockers.
“Let me tell you something,” he implored. “All of this is correctable. We are in this situation right now because we put ourselves in this situation, and I mean that in a good way. We got 3 games to win 2. That’s how you got to look at it. You can’t have your heads down right now, you got to stay together.”
In that moment with a late three-point lead, they dodged a bullet when Booker was credited for a blocked shot instead of his well-earned sixth foul. From one angle, Booker had appeared to block Jrue Holiday’s layup cleanly, but another angle showed Booker’s other arm wrapped around Holiday, preventing the Bucks guard from rising up for an easy layup in transition.
But the Suns were outscored 17-8 from that point anyway. The Booker ‘block’ simply turned into a Giannis Antetokounmpo layup a second later, the Bucks’ 342nd loose ball recovery of the game (or so it seemed). In the next sequence, Chris Paul inexplicably tried to beat Giannis to the rim for a layup but was swatted easily, resulting in a transition three-pointer for the Bucks. Lead gone.
The Suns would take the lead one more time but then the Bucks closed the game on a 12-4 run highlighted by a really bad Chris Paul turnover and all-time great Giannis block on a Deandre Ayton alley-oop dunk attempt.
What could have been a commanding 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals over a very good Milwaukee Bucks team is now a 2-2 tie with all the momentum coursing through the Bucks veins.
Williams was having none of it.
“Ever since I’ve been here we talked about ‘everything you want is on the other side of hard’,” Williams said. “This is hard. This is freaking hard. You gotta stick together. That’s the deal, all right? Let’s bring it in.“
Monty Williams knows about the other side of hard. Hard is losing your spouse to a car accident, having to pick up the pieces of your life with young children needing your guidance more than your grieving. It took a while, but Monty Williams got to the other side of that hard.
There’s always another Hard waiting for you, though.
Hard is also winning basketball games, whether against half-interested regular season competition or in an ultra-competitive NBA Finals do-or-die.
Playing basketball the right way, the consistent way, despite the opponent’s game plan against you, is hard. Winning games is hard, but you make it worse by putting your head down after a loss or getting too ‘happy on the farm’ over a win. Focus on the details, make the corrections, set aside the unproductive emotions, and you’ll eventually get to the other side.
When Monty Williams was hired to coach the Suns, they had just completed the latest in an abysmal four-year run of 27% basketball, winning only 87 of a possible 320 games. All with young shooting guard Devin Booker becoming one of the game’s best scorers but derided by national media as a ‘looter in a riot’ because of the incessant losing.
That was only two years ago.
Williams set a new culture among the players and the whole organization that summer with the help of three-time Champ and seven-time Finalist James Jones, whose first act as permanent General Manager was to hire Williams as coach.
Year one, the Suns almost made the playoffs. Year two, they’re in the Finals with home court advantage in what amounts to a three-game series.
“You got to love it, you got to embrace it,” second-year forward Cameron Johnson said after the loss. “This is what we all dreamed of being in this situation, right? This is — there’s no time to hang your head. There’s no time to pout.”
Johnson came to the Suns the same summer that Monty did, as the 11th overall pick in the 2019 Draft. He has not experienced the abject losing like Booker did for four years, or even what Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges suffered as rookies in that 19-win season.
Johnson’s ‘hard’ is competing in these Finals as a big man, fighting for rebounds against the taller Bucks while retaining his much-needed shooting rhythm on the other end. His role has morphed into a latter-day Channing Frye, except three inches shorter.
“This is 2-2 in the NBA Finals,” Johnson said. “We have an opportunity to do something really special…Every game takes on a life of its own. We got to be ready to capture the next one.”
The Suns return home to Phoenix and their rabid fan base to play Game 5, which is now the most important game of their lives. Whoever wins Game 5 has a 3-2 lead and only has to win one of the last two games to win the series.
The Suns still hold a 60% chance to win the series because Game 5 is on their home court.
“All of this is correctable,” Williams said to the team. “17 offensive rebounds they got. 17 turnovers we had. Think about that, guys. We had a 21-point fourth quarter. We’re making it hard on ourselves. We can’t have our heads down. It’s emotionally tough, but we got to know we put ourselves in this position. We got home court advantage. You got to keep your spirit high.”
These Suns have gotten to the other side of a lot of Hards in the last two years. Harder yet is winning Game 5 of a tied series in the NBA Finals when you’ve lost all the momentum. We’ll see on Saturday if these Suns are ready to see the other side of this latest Hard.
You can watch Monty Williams postgame speech to the team right here.