As I stated in my last addition of Center of the Sun, champions adjust. Unless you were the 1992 Dream Team (no adjustments needed for Chuck Daly and team), your team must constantly and consistently make adjustments if you want to navigate the tumultuous road that leads to a championship.
On Friday night in the Phoenix Suns’ first win in the Western Conference Semifinals against the Denver Nuggets, it felt like Monty Williams turned a corner. The Phoenix head coach made adjustments that put his team in the driver’s seat the majority of the game.
While some of the changes were forced by necessity, others were the result of being forced to observe the need for offensive veterans on the court to score points, not two-way contract guys.
On one hand, why the heck didn't Monty Williams play Warren and Ross earlier this series.— Dave King (@DaveKingNBA) May 6, 2023
On the other, props for being willing to pivot mid-series, under a ton of pressure
One adjustment came through observation, as Monty chose to stick with a player who was making an attempt after carefully observing the performances he was getting on the court.
Let’s explore what Monty did in Game 3 that helped the team get back in the series with a 121-114 victory.
Chris Paul’s injury, which occurred in the third quarter of Game 2, forced the hand of Monty Williams to start Cameron Payne.
Prior to Paul’s injury, Payne had played a total of 14:27 minutes this postseason. Granted, he entered the postseason with an injured back, doing so in the final game of the regular season against the Los Angeles Clippers. Monty was afforded the precious gift of time to allow Cam Payne to recover at his own pace.
With Paul out, that’s what we saw from CP15. Pace.
Payne pushing that pace and getting positive results pic.twitter.com/YllJ6JbMDf— John Voita (@DarthVoita) May 6, 2023
Chris Paul is a lot of things, but he’s not an offensive player that plays quickly and aggressively. Cameron Payne, however, is like a Ferrari compared to Chris ‘Ford Focus’ Paul.
The team, behind Payne's aggressiveness, got out in transition and ran in Game 3. This pressure was something that the Nuggets have not consistently seen yet in the series, and Phoenix took advantage of it, primarily in the first half.
The Suns had 16 fastbreak points in the first half, 5 more than they had for the entirety of Game 2, and finished with 23 points in transition. While the Nuggets are what you would define as a defensively elite team, putting them on the ropes but not allowing them to set their defense proved to be successful.
Oddly, the Suns did not push the pace as much in the second half, as they only posted 7 fast break points. This is an adjustment Monty can take advantage of in Game 4, using Cam Payne as the catalyst.
Hello, Outlet Boyz
T.J. Ross. It’s a thing.
When the time came for Monty Williams to make his first substitution in the game, he held true to his word.
“Those are two guys that could see significantly more time.”— PHNX Suns (@PHNX_Suns) May 3, 2023
Monty Williams confirms Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren could get more run in Game 3 to provide more offense alongside Devin Booker and Kevin Durant, and that they’ll live with “whatever warts may come with that”: pic.twitter.com/LBuOauzGXi
It was Terrence Ross that he called upon first.
Ross isn’t considered an average defender, but the man nicknamed “The Human Torch” provided Monty with somebody who could provide much needed scoring from the second team. It’s been noted numerous times that this is an adjustment needed by the Suns. While Ross only went for five points, shooting 2-of-7 from the field and 1-of-6 from beyond the arc, he brought to the second team something that’s been missing.
Monty’s love child Landry Shamet – who played 25 minutes due to necessity following CP3’s injury – is the walking embodiment of “lack of confidence”. He plays basketball like a sixth-grader at his first school dance, terrified of what could pop up if he’s asked to dance.
Who else did Monty insert that possesses the key psychological component of confidence? The man known as “Buckets”, T.J. Warren.
Warren played 26 minutes in Game 3 and they were valuable. In the fourth quarter, after calling time out with 3:04 left and up by four points, Monty Williams ran a play for Warren. He camped in the corner and waited for his opportunity to take a shot, and as Devin Booker drew the defense in, he passed to T.J. in the left corner. The shot went up, and he missed it.
But the very next possession, the Suns went to him again and, with confidence, the veteran wing knocked down the shot.
The next offensive possession for the Suns? Time was ticking and everything was breaking down. Booker was blitzed and doubled, and he found Warren in the corner. This time, the Nuggets were ready as Aaron Gordon closed out on Buckets.
T.J. made the adjustment and drove left past Gordon, leaned into one of his awkward 13-foot floaters, and had the intestinal fortitude to take the shot. He hit it, put the Suns up 114-107.
Five of his seven points came in the pivotal moments of the fourth quarter. I think back to Game 2, when Josh Okogie found himself alone in the paint in the waning minutes with a chance to make a jumper. He passed. Ross and Warren? They’ll take the shot.
Both are players who don’t shy away from shooting the ball, perhaps at times to a fault. But when you are in the postseason, you need players with confidence. They combined for 12 points, and everyone of them was needed.
Monty’s adjustment to punt on the defensive side of the ball – Okogie and Craig combined for 13 minutes in Gam
Grab Some Pine, DA
The biggest story and adjustment of the game came when Monty Williams made the adjustment to sit Deandre Ayton with five minutes left in the fourth quarter. Ayton did not have a good game. On both sides of the ball, once again, he looked lost.
Ayton has been awful in this game. Offensively and defensively. Really awful.— Dave King (@DaveKingNBA) May 6, 2023
His defensive rotations were nonexistent. Offensively he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to lay the ball up or dunk it, so he just quit halfway in between both. And then quit on defense on the same possession, allowing a Jokic layup the other way. He frantically held the ball in his hands, dying to get rid of it like someone who believed it was a grenade.
It wasn’t a good game for DA.
I’m sure there will be plenty written, breaking down the specifics of Ayton’s poor performance. Oh, I’m sure people will have fun eviscerating that performance.
But one of the most valuable adjustments in Game 3 was when Monty Williams recognized that Jock Landale was the right player to have on the court in the final minutes.
While he didn’t neutralize Nikola Jokić, – the guy went for 30 points, 17 rebounds, and 17 assists – he did make him work. He did fluster him. Like Russell Westbrook against Kevin Durant in the First Round, he got underneath him defensively and was a pest. He played physically. And Monty Williams rewarded him for it.
It’s not something we normally see from Monty, rewarding someone who is playing hard with minutes. He typically falls into his rotations, regardless of effort. But on Friday night he recognized and rewarded effort, and the man without effort had to watch the game from the bench.
Despite the majority of the adjustments being made, we have to wonder how effective they really were. Of the 121 points the Phoenix Suns scored, 86 of them came from Devin Booker and Kevin Durant. 71%. Devin Booker shot 20-of-25 from the field to garner his 47 points in this game. Durant attacked the rim and earned 14 of his 39 points at the line.
As amazing as both Booker and Durant have been this postseason, what they are doing isn’t what I would classify as, “sustainable”. From an offensive output standpoint, the team still needs a tertiary scorer. They had no players outside of Booker and Durant who scored in double figures in this game.
Find ways to put other players in a position to score. The Suns are in desperate need of x-factors to help win a game. The Nuggets had Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter, Jr. contribute heavily in a Game 1 victory. The Suns need the same at some point in the series from someone not named Booker or Durant.
Onto the next adjustment, Monty.