MILWAUKEE — The Phoenix Suns faced a roadblock one month into the season, losing three consecutive games, holding an 8-8 record and facing the reality of slipping into mediocrity.
Newly acquired veteran Jae Crowder, fresh off an NBA Finals run with the Miami Heat, believed in his team’s potential and spearheaded a breakthrough conversation amongst his peers.
“When you’re on a good team, you have to sacrifice,” Crowder said to his teammates.
“I think that clicked with our group because we had a lot of guys that wanted to do a lot more than what their role was,” Crowder said. “But it just takes the coaching staff, it takes players in the locker room to just come together and mend it all together and just sacrifice for your teammates, for the guy next to you, to be a part of something special.”
A piece of that sacrifice was players humbling themselves enough to listen to each other during those tough discussions and understanding that, as coach Monty Williams says it’s about calling your teammates up, rather than calling them out.
The Suns are led by two of the most vocal players in the NBA in Crowder and Chris Paul. But as this thrilling season unfolded, many other Suns began to find their own voices and are now encouraged by Williams to speak out and speak up entering Wednesday’s Game 4 of the NBA Finals.
"We all do it to a certain extent,” Devin Booker said. “Anybody can do that anytime on this team … Nobody takes it personal. Nobody gets mad at somebody for doing anything like that. I think it just brings our team together even more.
“ ... You don't want to be the one person in the group that can't be talked to. That's not a good look. So it's kind of contagious throughout everybody."
Guard Cameron Payne noticed this player empowerment from Williams when he first arrived with the team in the Orlando Bubble. Williams acknowledged that, during a game, he sometimes won’t say anything at all and instead let his players run the huddle.
“Coach has allowed players to have the floor sometimes before practices and just to see what's on our minds,” Payne said. “The fact we can say stuff to our own teammates, it makes it much easier.”
Williams credited former Suns point guard Ricky Rubio with stepping up as a vocal leader for the Suns during the team’s 8-0 Bubble run, setting up the platform for others to feel comfortable speaking their minds.
“(Rubio) poured into our young guys,” Williams said. “I thought last year prepared them, and they're willing learners. … I think it takes young guys a bit to know what to say when you're learning a new system.”
Rubio’s leadership allowed for a smoother transition into Paul and Crowder’s occasionally more brute style in order for guys like Payne, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Deandre Ayton to receive the kind of messages being shared with them. In return, Paul and Crowder allow for the other guys to express themselves, as well.
Still, the willingness to deliver and accept those candid messages did not happen overnight. Booker acknowledged "it (took) a few little disagreements and talking about it for some time" during the early portion of the season.
"You might go a day of not liking each other," Booker said. "That's fine. You come back the next day, and you squash it and you talk it out amongst each other as men."
During a season with so many restrictions due to the health and safety protocols from the COVID-19 pandemic, Paul said the team has basically only spent time at two places together in Phoenix: the Verizon 5G Performance Center and Phoenix Suns Arena. So instead of participating in team-bonding activities outside of basketball, the Suns instead used their time together at practice, on the bus and on the plane to develop those relationships and used their victories to build trust with one another.
“That's what our team has done a great job of,” Paul said. “Making sure that we come every day, come to practice to work, but at the same time making sure that we have fun and actually enjoy being around each other."
Payne said that Paul taught his teammates how to hold each other accountable and has helped build the culture where it is safe for any player to speak out when necessary. And on the flip side, those teammates have built the trust to positively receive whatever is being asked of them.
“If someone's messing up, 1 through 15 has the right to say something to you because we know each other off the court. No one ever takes it the wrong way,” Payne said. “That's one of the biggest things of building a championship organization, a championship team — being able to take criticism from your co-workers, that's huge.”
Whether it’s the future Hall of Famer in Paul or the last man on the bench, whether at practice or during a game, or whether in silo or in front of everyone, critiques, feedback and open dialogue are welcomed throughout the Suns locker room.
Everyone on roster is designated a role and, therefore, has a voice. That is showcased during timeouts, when players such as Torrey Craig, E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway speak in front of the team huddle while Williams draws up a play with his assistants. Or when reserves such as Jevon Carter, Frank Kaminsky and Jalen Smith provide positive energy from the sideline, lifting up their teammates — sometimes physically when they hit the deck during game action — while sharing constructive commentary.
“Guys like that are invaluable,” Johnson said. “Things might not be going great all the time. Things might be going great. Either way, they’re there to pick us up and give us any bit of advice, anything they see, and it keeps that team spirit, that team mood, and it keeps it high, keeps it elevated, and they’ve done a great job of that.”
After struggling during the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Clippers, Bridges said that Moore suggested he mix up his offense and try to get to the rim rather than settle for only 3-pointers. Bridges responded with the second-highest scoring outing of his career in Game 2 of the Finals, scoring 27 points against the Bucks by blending pull-ups in the lane and finishes at the rim with shots from beyond the arc.
When asked about his performance after the game, Bridges gave Moore a shout out for reminding him to open up his offensive repertoire.
Bridges said that the Suns’ togetherness is what allows for these conversations to be had. No matter how harsh the words may seem, Bridges added, each player understands that it’s not about how it’s being said, but rather what is being said to assist the overall betterment of the team.
“Nobody’s out here to be disrespectful or embarrass you,” Bridges said. “We all know that. We're on you because of what we want. We want to win, and I've got to get on you so you can be better so we all can be better.
“There's never no one upset with each other. It's just tough love. Sometimes you might be mad because you're not playing at the level you want to play at, and you might get frustrated, but then when it's over, you kind of dap the person up and say, ‘My fault for being mad. I was tripping.’”
Few, if any, Suns players have faced these tough conversations more than Ayton. Paul and Booker have openly acknowledged as much, saying they have been “on his ass” throughout this season. Booker recently described that he will often wait right next to Paul as he speaks to Ayton 1-on-1, then will add his two cents once Paul finishes.
That dialogue is only possible because of the respect that Ayton has for his teammates, along with his overall understanding that they believe in his potential and want the best for him.
While outsiders may sometimes interpret their interactions as arguing or scolding, Paul made it clear that, “it was all constructive.”
Ayton said that learning from his backcourt became an everyday occurrence. Booker and Paul teamed up to teach him the importance of approaching the game the right way, being alert, knowing his matchup tendencies and being a dominant presence on both ends of the floor.
“They got to tell me something every day,” Ayton said. “Book always has something to say, in a good way, just to get me going. … They keep a consistent thing where they are always giving constructive criticism, and I take the best of it.”
But just as they’re the first to get on Ayton about something negative, they’re also the first to sing his praises. Ayton joined Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA Finals history to notch 22 points and 19 rebounds on 80 percent shooting during Game 1 against the Bucks, according to Stathead.
As Ayton took the podium for his postgame news conference, Paul sat in the background and proudly watched Ayton answer questions regarding his historic performance.
“Just seeing the maturity in him, not only as basketball player, but as a person,” Paul said. “Everybody doesn’t get a chance to know him off the court, but he has the biggest heart. One of the best guys you’ll ever meet. So the success and the recognition that he’s getting right now is well deserved, and I couldn’t be happier for another guy on our team.”
Those deep 1-on-1 conversations with his teammates are paying dividends for the former first overall pick, leading to a breakout postseason during which he has dominated on both ends of the floor despite going head-to-head against All-Star Anthony Davis, MVP Nikola Jokic, a small-ball mismatch with the Clippers and now two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Ayton developed into an anchor and disruptor on defense, the screener to open up the offense, a threat to rise above the rim and a versatile rebounder able to box out for others or attack the glass himself. Those are improvements that his teammates continuously pushed him toward this season.
“The way he's worked all season long, he took it to a whole 'nother level during the playoffs,” Paul said.
Added Booker: “That’s why Chris can say that’s who he’s most proud of, and I feel the same way. We’re all in his ear. We’re all on him. And for him to retain all that information and come perform at the level that he’s been performing, it’s hard to put words to it because we have been tough on him.”
Not only did Ayton embrace those conversations, but he’s begun to initiate them himself. Booker highlighted Ayton’s willingness to learn, saying that instead of teammates going up to Ayton with advice, now Ayton approaches others seeking what to do in certain situations.
“He might come to me and be like, so what should I do when this happens,” Booker said. “So just little things like that. He still has even more in the tank that he's going to show soon.”
During this Finals series, Ayton and the rest of the Suns have turned to Crowder for his leadership, seeking advice on matchups and reflecting back to his Heat team that upset the top-seeded Bucks 4-1 in last season’s Eastern Conference Semifinals.
“Telling me what they like to do and what they don’t like and things they like to do when it comes to drawing fouls,” Ayton said about Crowder. “ … Getting on our butts a little bit and making us step up. You need a guy like that.”
Crowder has been an outspoken leader throughout his whole career, a quality he said comes naturally to him. His voice was critical for the Suns all season, but is now being amplified to another level as the only player on either team that entered this series with Finals experience. Booker said that the biggest key to Crowder’s leadership is his honesty.
“He's always communicating with our team and talking to guys and giving any type of pointers and being honest with them,” Booker said. “I always talk about honesty with our team and, when somebody's slacking, just letting them know. And even if it's aggressive, we have a team that can relay that information and don't take it personal. And Jae is one of them guys that, if you're slipping up, he's going to get on you.”
One month after joining the Suns, Crowder stood up and called out the .500 team that sat before him. Six months later, Crowder’s vocal presence, along with the other voices in the Suns locker room, carried the franchise to their first-ever series lead in an NBA Finals. It took trust, close relationships and the willingness to be humble for this Suns team to grow together and quickly develop a winning culture that has them on the cusp of their first NBA title.
“It just comes from the heart,” Crowder said. “It comes from wanting the best for my teammates and wanting to compete as a team at the highest level and put myself and my teammates in a position to do so.”