Less than a week away from departing to Orlando, the Phoenix Suns are gearing up for the tough grind ahead before tipping-off for the restart of the NBA season.
“We're not going to ride on Space Mountain and do the Disney thing,” said Head Coach Monty Williams. “Forget Mickey. This is freaking ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Gladiator’ stuff that we are trying to will onto other teams. That's the mindset. We've talked about embracing hard for a long, long time since I've been here. It is difficult, but this team has learned how to embrace hard. We understand what it takes when you're up against hard. You've got to get on the other side of it.”
As the Suns prepare for the journey with an opportunity to defy the odds, Williams is engraining one mindset to the team: let’s win and let’s start that mentality today.
“The way I've always approached every situation is to not get too far ahead of myself,” Williams said. “We obviously have a goal, which is to make the playoffs. I learned a long time ago that you can't skip steps. So, we're dialing into today. Being mindful of the workouts we have, giving guys a ton of information, reinforcing our language and vernacular and all the things that we've emphasized with the goal in mind.”
Williams views the journey ahead as a new season, but gives credit to his team for their continued fight all year to earn them this opportunity. The Suns outplayed their preseason projections throughout the season, reaching 26 wins with over a month left to play while keeping themselves in the playoff hunt.
With less than a full season as head coach under his belt, Williams has transformed the Suns on and off the court, and lead them to a berth in the Orlando bubble.
“It speaks to the work that the players have put in,” Williams said. “We were not a team that was even looked at this way. We were on the outside, ranked pretty poorly in a lot of categories. Because of the guys' ability to commit to the program and work their butts off, we're in the bubble and that's an accomplishment. It's not the one we want, but it's an accomplishment and a step.”
The new norm has already set in as the Suns and the rest of the NBA enter these uncharted times but getting a chance to compete for the playoffs and continue to play basketball is what it’s always been about.
“It's certainly different,” Williams said. “It's a different kind of different. We just want to do everything we can to put people in a position to be safe, but also do what we love to do, which is play and coach basketball.”
Circumstances and surroundings may appear different, but Williams’ focus on leading the Suns to victory remains a constant. While the Suns odds appear slim, Williams isn’t going to let this opportunity slip away and he will do everything in his power to give his team a fighting chance throughout the eight games.
“Everything we're going to do will be based on winning games,” Williams said. “So, if I put Mikal or Cam or any one of our guys in a situation that is not as familiar to our fan base, it's not to just experiment for experimenting sake. It's for the win. That's always been our mindset. We're all highly competitive and we're going down there to win games. I don't know any other way I can say it.”
The Suns are set to arrive in Orlando next Tuesday, but the preparation has already begun in Phoenix.
“It's just been good to be back in the gym,” Williams said. “We have film set up with a lot of our languages and concepts. Watching our guys go to the film and look at the plays and refresh themselves, that's been pretty cool.”
The players returned to workouts over the past month at the Suns’ original home, Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum, but due to safety precautions and league regulations, Williams presence wasn’t allowed. The Head Coach had to work with his players from afar, staying connected as workouts were simplified to just one player, one assistant coach and one basketball.
Williams and the other coach’s around the league were finally granted permission to return the sidelines, but Williams trust for his assistants has allowed for a smooth transition.
“I've tried to not invade the court as much as I want to because the coaches have handled it so well,” Williams said. “I wasn't allowed to be here a lot at all until recently. So, being able to see the guys' faces and talk about basketball, talk about family, talk about all that stuff has been pretty cool. Then we get right to the competitive side and we start talking about schemes and different wrinkles we're trying to implement.”
Basketball is heavily engrained into the lives of everyone in the NBA and these past few months have been the longest many of them have ever gone without competition on hardwood. Returning to the court has allowed them to fill that void in their life and feel a sense of normalcy.
“Just getting back into the gym has been cathartic for a lot of us who just love the gym and love being around each other,” Williams said. “It's really helped me a ton. When you've been quarantined so long and being in somewhat of a limited routine, it's good to have the gym to get back with your guys. I miss being around our guys. I've shared that with them a number of times.”
Due to the uncommon circumstances of the last few months between the COVID-19 pandemic, the fight against social injustice and the overall uncertain future, Williams has made it a priority to listen to his players and hear their thoughts during these trying times.
“I've spent a lot of time listening,” Williams said. “I told the staff, when we get a chance to talk to the guys and be around them again, do your best to listen. When you're locked up like that, your mind tends to wander and you've had a chance to think and contemplate life, your career roles, reflecting on shortcomings, all that stuff. So, I've tried to be a good listener and not try to force my way of thinking on anyone. I've learned a lot about our guys. The text messages and phone calls and conversations I've had have been really cool. I wanted to do something a bit different and just listen to the guys as best I could. Hopefully I can use those things as a leader and someone in their life to make them better players and enhance their lives as men.”
While Williams sees the importance in checking on his players’ mental health, he’s also focused on preparing them for what lies ahead in Orlando.
Five-on-five workouts won’t be implemented for a few more weeks due to league regulations as the players are still working towards a base after being away from the game since March. The players are building back their cardio, getting back into game shape and gearing up for the Suns high-pace play on the court.
As their training continues to intensify, Williams has witnessed firsthand the focus and dedication from his players, showing they are ready to prove themselves on the big stage.
“Outside of Kelly's medical situation, everybody I've talked to, they’re nothing but excited about the chance to play,” Williams said. “We understand where we were and where we're going and this is a huge step for us. They're excited. They want to hoop. So, I think that along with their competitive edge and wanting to hoop, I don't think I've heard one guy hesitate as it relates to playing.”
Just as Williams is looking at this restart as a new season, he has also seen the team’s younger players return after having time to expand their games, grow their bodies and reset their minds as if they were also entering a new year.
“It feels like guys like Cam [Johnson], Ty, Jevon and all of our young guys have had that first summer away from the game where they've had a chance to marinate and think and reflect on their season,” Williams said. “They come back better just from being away from it for a short bit. It seems like this is somewhat of a second season, however different. Cam was one of those guys who seems like he's just gotten better from being away from the game for about three, almost four months and having a chance to work on some things and come back with more confidence.”
The rookies and sophomores have already shown growth, while the veteran players are eager to get back to work. Williams is seeing players like Devin Booker, who have dreaded the lack of competition over the last few months, show a desire to prove himself and his team in Orlando.
“I'm sure he struggled because he's a gym guy,” Williams said. “There are certain guys that like to play and be in the gym and hoop. He's one of them. Just having been around him, I know it's probably something that he's hated. I think he wants to go to Orlando and cement himself as one of the better players in the league in a different way. He made the All-Star team. Now, I think he's probably got his eyes set on All-NBA and he's more than capable.”
While the players are gearing up on the court, Williams continues to prepare off of it through endless film sessions of the upcoming competition.
“I've already watched the Washington game more times than I should have,” Williams said. “I watched Dallas again. I've watched Utah and I'll watch them even more. The Clippers games. That's my job, but it's also what I like to do. I'm of the mindset of looking at the big picture and then I break that picture down and try to stay focused on today and get our guys as best as we can get them where they're playing at the end of July to optimum rate. That starts with having a good day today.”
Following the signing of Cameron Payne on Tuesday and holstering a nearly healthy roster, the Suns’ coaching staff is looking to exhaust all options when it comes to the depth chart. Williams is setting the stage for a competitive next few weeks on a quest to construct the ideal lineup that gives the Suns their best shot to defy the odds in Orlando.
“We'll get a chance to evaluate and look at different combinations,” Williams said. “I think competition, in my opinion, always sets the deck. We're going to compete and then we'll get a chance to play against other teams before we start. That'll help me evaluate.”
The Suns first tip-off in Orlando on July 31 against the Washington Wizards. The odds may be stacked against them to advance to the playoffs, but there’s a chance and that’s all they need.
“To have a chance to get back on the floor and not have to sit until possibly December or January is huge for us,” Williams said. “It's monumental to be able to coach. It's almost like a summer league as far as what we're doing now and then that mindset will transfer into trying to make the playoffs.”
For a more-in-depth look at the Suns preparation for Orlando, be sure to tune-in to the Suns social channels and YouTube page this Sunday at 11:00 a.m. PT as we take you into the Madhouse and behind the scenes in the next episode of “Don’t Sleep on Basketball.”