How the Suns’ full-throttle mentality propelled them to Western Conference Semifinals
The seven-second flurry flipped a two-point deficit into a two-point advantage. And perhaps no stretch of the season more embodies the 2020-21 Phoenix Suns.
Trailing 88-86 late in the third quarter of a May 7 game against the New York Knicks, Devin Booker grabbed a Julius Randle airball and raced the opposite way to beat the clock. He missed the contested layup, but Torrey Craig flew in for the acrobatic putback with 0.8 seconds remaining in the period.
Cameron Payne then got his hands up to swipe the inbound pass, and let the ball go off the glass just before the buzzer. The normally stoic Monty Williams jubilantly rushed the floor with Suns players, as a stunned-yet-euphoric home crowd went berserk.
“The play at the end of the third said it all,” Williams said after the game “That was just guys out there making plays and playing relentless basketball.”
The formal definition of the word “relentless” is “oppressively constant; incessant.” That descriptor has followed the Suns throughout this season, applying to their on-court style of play and their everyday habits while navigating this unique season. Knocking off the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs’ first round required a relentless approach, which now carries the Suns into the Western Conference Semifinals against the Denver Nuggets.
“It’s just how the guys are built, individually and as a collective group,” Booker said. “If you go down the list of all the players, there’s nobody that’s scared of the moment. There’s nobody that hasn’t prepared for this moment.
“This isn’t new. This is how we’ve been playing for most of the season. We’ve had ups and downs, but we’re a confident team and we play hard all the way through.”
The Suns established this intangible during Williams’ first season, when they were an upstart team that played with competitive grit while digging in on defense and moving the ball on offense.
Yet Phoenix’s players took it to a higher level when they arrived for the Orlando Bubble, viewing it as a renewed opportunity despite the longshot odds to advance to the postseason. After practices, most of the roster returned for late-night shooting sessions. Those players started creating havoc on the floor while compiling eight consecutive wins to close the season, and Williams searched for “a word that would bring all of that together.”
The coach’s “aha!” moment came while watching Toronto play Brooklyn in the playoffs’ first round, when Williams heard then-broadcaster Stan Van Gundy call point guard Fred Van Vleet and the Raptors “relentless.”
“I was like, ‘That’s us,’” Williams said. “ … I showed the guys that clip and, from Day 1, we said, ‘That’s who we’re gonna be.’”
And who better than Chris Paul to add to that mix?
Paul’s ferocious work habits — how he trains and eats, how he dissects film, how he never stops talking on the court and on the bench — have kept him playing at an MVP level at age 36. Those influenced everybody from Booker, who also loves the grind, to Deandre Ayton, whose development hit another gear against the Lakers, to Payne, who is reviving his NBA career with the Suns.
“I can’t say enough about what Chris has meant to the program,” Williams said.
That team-wide relentless mentality shows up in games when Payne and Jevon Carter pressure 94 feet, or when Craig skies for an offensive rebound over a taller player. It was needed to sweep the Jazz, the Sixers and the Bucks during the regular season, including an April overtime win in Milwaukee that Williams often references as a playoff-like environment. It popped during an overtime outburst at Cleveland, when the Suns blocked four shots and did not allow a point until the 1:35 mark to steamroll to a 16-point win.
A sequence in Game 2 against the Lakers — when Payne poked the ball away from Alex Caruso, scrambled for the it near midcourt, redirected himself to double Anthony Davis and forced the Lakers' All-Star to call timeout near the sideline — captured how the Suns have transferred this style to the playoffs.
“We’re trying to just continue to impose our will for 48 minutes,” veteran forward Jae Crowder said. “ … It definitely takes all of us to continue to pursue the style of play that we want to play each and every night.”
But that relentless quality also apppears away from the court.
Following the Bubble, many players stayed in Phoenix to work out with the Suns’ staff at Veterans Memorial Coliseum and the new Verizon 5G Performance Center. Williams recently reminded that Booker spent his All-Star break getting treatment on a minor knee injury instead of traveling to Atlanta to partake in the weekend’s festivities, a sign he was “more focused on the team than himself.” Players, coaches and staff tested daily for COVID-19 throughout the entire season — a task that perhaps seems less draining for those who have not been required to do it for months — and abided by strict health and safety protocols on the road while navigating a condensed schedule.
The Valley fans have also taken on their team’s attitude, creating a raucous home-court advantage down the stretch of the regular season and first round of the playoffs.
“When we get like that in front of our crowd and we have our crowd in it,” Williams said after that Knicks game, “these fans and this city, we make this place a special place to play — and hard place to play for opponents.”
Those relentless moments eventually morphed into impressive consistency. The Suns finished with the NBA’s second-best regular-season record. They went two months without losing consecutive games, and their only three-game skid came in January. Phoenix also never rested players until the regular season’s final game, concentrating more on piling up wins than exercising load management.
“We wanted to approach every game like it was a must-win,” second-year wing Cam Johnson said. “That’s just kind of our DNA.”
Naturally, the Suns leaned on being relentless when they fell behind 2-1 against the Lakers.
Following Game 3, Williams referenced John 1:9, which reads “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” Though he did not relay that specific Bible verse to players, Williams reminded them that “when things aren’t going my way or when the stuff is stacked against me, you can’t run from it. I got all these gray hairs on my chin and less on my head for a reason, but I’m still here. And I think our guys can pull confidence from that.”
The coach stressed that shooters needed to “let it fly,” a bolder version of his “reps remove doubt” mantra. But Williams also emphasized keeping a determined focus on the game plan and not let that attention shift to arguing with the officials or entertaining any chippiness from the Lakers.
“The playoffs bring you to your limits in a lot of ways,” Williams said. “That’s how you grow, and you’re watching our young team grow on the fly.”
The Suns seized control of the series in the second half of a Game 4 victory. That propelled them to a Game 5 thrashing, then a clinching Game 6 road win anchored by Booker’s 47 points. Players doused Williams with water in the postgame locker room to celebrate his first playoff series win as a head coach.
Minutes later, Crowder emphasized the importance of letting the win marinate that night before quickly shifting to Denver the following morning. Williams did not even wait that long. He began studying Nuggets film on the plane ride back to Phoenix.
Because Williams, like his Suns team, is relentless.
“There’s not a lot of time to sit around and reflect,” Williams said. “That’s for the offseason, and we hope that’s a ways away.”