Two years ago, the Suns held a 2-0 lead on the Bucks in the NBA Finals and appeared primed for their first championship. The Suns, led by coach Monty Williams and All-Star Devin Booker, then lost four consecutive games and ended a stellar season in disappointing fashion.
The Suns have since been considered favorites in the West. Last season, they were knocked off in the conference semifinals by the Mavericks, including an embarrassing 33-point Game 7 loss at home. On Thursday, despite the presence of Kevin Durant to go along with Booker, the Suns were ushered out at home by the Nuggets, allowing 81 first-half points in another disheartening defeat.
Now there are major questions for the Suns. The first shoe dropped Saturday night, when Williams was fired after four seasons as head coach. Chris Paul, acquired in November 2020 to galvanize a young group with his leadership, was injured yet again and missed the final four games of the Denver series with a groin strain.
Paul, a cinch Hall of Famer who was once the league’s top point guard, is in decline and may not have enough to lead a championship-caliber team to the promised land. Paul is set to earn $30 million next season in the final year of his contract but only $15 million is guaranteed, so he could be waived or traded.
Paul intimated he plans to play next season and noted that he is under contract with the Suns. So, he’s ready to run it back.
“It’s a lot, but we all know we came up short,” said Paul. “We’ve got to regroup and see what’s next. You learn to be grateful for the opportunity. I definitely get a chance to play basketball every day and that’s a blessing. I’m grateful. There are a lot of people who would love to be in this situation. I’m 38 years old and you can call it what you want to.
“But I come in and work hard every single day and I’m not going to act like I’m here by luck or something like that. I put the work in and put the work in for a long time and you can analyze and say what you want to about it, but for me it’s about the work and not everybody wants to do the work. A lot of people want to talk about it and analyze it, but all I do is put my head down and do the work and when you do that I can live with the results.”
Durability has been a question for Paul in recent years, and a 38-year-old lead guard for a contending team would be unprecedented. Steve Nash was an All-Star at age 37 in his final year with Phoenix but played just 65 more games after that. Paul wants to defy conventional wisdom.
“I get to play basketball and that’s my way of life, and I get to play it at a high level,” he said. “I know who Devin is at the core. I think the hardest part for me was not being able to be out there and help him in those situations. But Book knows me and where my heart is. You don’t play 18 years at a high level and not learn how to adjust and adapt with the game. I’ve been in the NBA a lot longer than some people have been covering it.
“I don’t talk about it too much but I know this game just about better than anybody. I put that up against anybody and that’s not going to change. And I’m going to keep putting in the work, so if you’re mad at it, you hate it, it’s on you.”
There are other issues in Phoenix. Former No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton, who the Suns drafted over Luka Doncic and Trae Young, struggled mightily in his matchup with two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. Ayton missed Game 6 with bruised ribs, leading to questions about his toughness and desire. Ayton is a capable center but has never been an All-Star and has been a slight disappointment.
Ayton could be traded this offseason as the Suns seek a more productive and reliable center, but he wants to stay in Phoenix.
“I love Phoenix,” he said. “I’m going to continue to play hard for Phoenix. I don’t listen to the outside noise. I’m here. I’m happy. We didn’t finish things off the way we wanted but there’s always next year and we’ve just got to do a little more work. NBA teams are getting smarter, so there’s a lot to focus on.
“[The criticism] is easy to ignore. I let the peanut gallery keep going and then I shut them up with my performance. Having teammates that know you and help you with your mental is big and I don’t take that for granted.”
Ayton had a right to be annoyed with the organization. The Suns refused to sign him to a maximum contract extension, allowing him to enter restricted free agency. The Suns then matched the Pacers’ offer, bringing him back at considerably less than a max contract. Ayton clashed with Williams over his work ethic and role in the offense. Before Williams’ dismissal, Ayton said everything is good.
“What family don’t have ups and downs?” he said. “Especially when both of us are on the same mission. When we were losing, it felt like we were losing every game and guys were out and injured. Just knowing what type of coach he is and him knowing me as a man and me doing the same thing, it brought a better understanding to what we stand for and how we go about things. We’ve built something here and we’ve made a stronger unit.
“We didn’t have a training camp with this team. We didn’t have enough time. I just finished playing a postseason with Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, and Devin Booker. We train, we practice and all that to be in these moments. And any time you couldn’t be out there to help your team, it’s tough.”
Could Ayton have played in Game 6? He said no. But there’s a perception he did not want to play because of the Jokic matchup. Williams opted for backup center Jock Landale in key stretches in the series.
“I think every time they scored, I kept clenching on my jaws,” Ayton said of Game 6. “Having some teammates that help me off the court mentally. The game of basketball brings a lot and just coming in the gym and just having your mind on winning takes a lot of that stuff away, and you just keep taking the right steps. How can I get better? I can’t wait to get started this summer.”
Of course, with a full training camp with Durant and Booker, the Suns should improve, but they also gutted their roster — Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges — to acquire Durant, which impacted their depth. They will need to add experienced players for another playoff run.
“You process how poorly you played and that’s not something you can hide from,” Williams said. “When it comes to a screeching halt, it’s a tough thing. When it comes to a screeching halt, everybody just flies everywhere and you’re trying to figure out what happened. I can’t use [being thrown together at the trade deadline] as an excuse, it’s my job to put it together. It’s my job to make it work and make guys comfortable. [General manager] James [Jones] and I always take time to let things settle before we start making decisions like that. Obviously, there’s some things we have to address.”
Williams, who was fired in New Orleans in 2015 despite a playoff appearance, said he understands the landscape. His counterpart in the 2021 Finals, Mike Budenholzer, was fired earlier this month as Bucks coach.
“[My job] is not something I worry about, but it is part of the economy,” said Williams, prognosticating the news that would soon arrive. “There are good coaches who have lost their jobs shortly after winning a championship. That’s what is different about our business. I’m not close-minded to what I’ve seen around the league, a lot of these guys who have lost their jobs, they’re good friends of mine.”
Redick weighs in on Celtics-76ers
Former NBA sharpshooter J.J. Redick, now an ESPN analyst who reportedly has interviewed for the Raptors’ head coaching job, offered his thoughts on the Celtics’ struggles in late-game situations and their overall approach in the series against the 76ers.
Cohesive late-game plays are difficult to execute, and the Celtics botched their chance in overtime of Game 4, unable to get a shot off when Jayson Tatum passed moments too late to Marcus Smart for the potential game-winner.
Redick said these pivotal plays can be foiled because of the slightest miscalculation, encouraging teams to allow their best player to make a decision to shoot or pass. The Celtics also had a chance to win Game 1 after James Harden’s go-ahead 3-pointer, but Smart freelanced, drove against two defenders, and then tried a panicked pass to Tatum, who couldn’t come up with the ball.
“I think the safe play a lot of times is hero-ball [isolation],” Redick said. “You’re going to get a shot up. I think historically the numbers aren’t great, and you go back to Game 1, and I’ve watched that play several times, and it looks like they’re trying to run a staggered pin-down for Jaylen [Brown] and with Jayson as the first screener getting a slip. And when you run something like that … timing and spacing and selling it matter so much.
“People were asking, why did you go to Marcus Smart? But for me, that play was for Jayson to get a back cut and to score a layup at the rim. And it just didn’t happen. Whether Marcus went [on his own] or Tatum didn’t sell the screen or even Al [Horford’s] spacing on the screen, where he was in no man’s land where Marcus didn’t have a clean kick to him, it’s just hard to do. Late-game execution is one of the hardest things.”
Redick believes Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla should have called a timeout before that final sequence of Game 4 to get his offense more organized. After enduring heavy criticism, Mazzulla acknowledged he should have used a timeout.
“I tend to agree with [calling timeouts late in games],” Redick said. “I think if you have an opportunity to manage the game, where you can get more than one look at [the basket], I would probably lean toward the management of the game and throw out the strategy of not allowing the other team to put their best defensive unit on the floor.
“Joe’s going through this as a head coach for the first time, overall. He’s done a remarkable job this season, but there’s always lessons to be learned in the playoffs. It’s the nature of the close game because there are hundreds of plays that lead to that moment, but it comes down to that one play.”
Redick has noticed the Celtics’ habit of failing to get into their offense quickly late in games, costing them scoring opportunities.
“The strategy is not the issue, it’s more about the time management,” he said. “That Boston-New York game I called [in January] that went into overtime, there were several instances in regulation and overtime just getting into the play too late. That’s what happened in Game 4, just not giving yourself enough time.”
Redick played with Joel Embiid for two seasons. He has noticed the improvements 76ers management has made in surrounding him with more shooters and capitalizing on his ability to shoot from mid-range. Embiid is one of the better perimeter-shooting big men in the NBA.
“They’ve surrounded him with the right people, put him in the right spots,” Redick said. “What really took off last year was having him operate at the foul line and elbow. It makes it tougher to double, allows him to put the ball on his left hand. There’s no good answer with a star player.”
Mazzulla made a key adjustment in Game 6 by starting Robert Williams along with Horford, and deploying more aggressive coverage on Embiid to prevent open mid-range shots.
“[The Celtics] playing in that heavy drop against the Embiid-Harden pick-and-roll lends itself to getting the ball to Joel Embiid in exactly the spot he wants it,” Redick said. “He’s not rolling to the rim. He’s in that short roll area. You have to put a little more pressure on the ball. You have to force [Harden] right. He’s had success in this series when he gets to his left hand.”
Redick said the Celtics’ biggest goal in Sunday’s Game 7 should be figuring out how to utilize Tatum and Brown in more two-man actions that can lead to better offensive production.
“I don’t think this is a fatal flaw at all, because the Celtics were two games from winning an NBA championship last year,” Redick said. “The track record of playoff success with conference finals berths is there. This is the inherent conundrum of Jayson and Jaylen. Think about duos in the playoffs for teams really in contention. We think about two-man action. We think about [Nikola] Jokic and [Jamal] Murray, Embiid and Harden, LeBron [James] and [Anthony Davis]. Their skill sets aren’t as redundant as Jaylen and Jayson’s.
“If you can have two-man action that draws a third defender, where the big has got to make a decision, that to me is easier at times in the playoffs to create offense. It’s the inherent conundrum of those two guys being big wings.”
The Pistons’ coaching search has centered around former UConn coach Kevin Ollie and longtime NBA assistant Jarron Collins. Ollie led the Huskies to the national championship in 2014 and was considered one of the NCAA’s rising coaches before the Huskies struggled and he was fired in 2018. He is the head coach of Overtime Elite, a professional team that tutors high school and college-aged players for the NBA. Collins was an assistant for the Warriors before joining the Pelicans and has been considered a top coaching prospect for years. The Pistons are seeking an energetic coach who can mold a young roster into a contender. Also, Detroit has a 14 percent chance to land the top pick in Tuesday’s draft lottery with the opportunity to select French center Victor Wembanyama … New Houston coach Ime Udoka is in the process of filling out his staff and could reach out to Celtics assistants Ben Sullivan and Aaron Miles. Udoka will represent the Rockets at the draft lottery. There are other intriguing prospects besides Wembanyama, such as G League Ignite’s Scoot Henderson and University of Alabama swingman Brandon Miller. The Pistons, Rockets, and Spurs have the best odds of landing the first pick at 14 percent. The Hornets have a 12.5 percent chance and the Trail Blazers 10 percent. One of the reasons why the Mavericks tanked their last two games and were fined $750,000 was to increase their chances of finishing with a top-10 pick, meaning they would keep the pick instead of sending it to the Knicks as part of the Kristaps Porzingis trade. The Knicks have the right to Dallas’s first-round pick in 2024 or 2025 if it’s not in the top 10. With the depth of this draft and the Mavericks desperately needing young help for Luka Doncic, they wanted to cash in … An intriguing team to watch as the draft approaches is the Magic, who have a 9 percent chance at the first pick. Orlando has loaded its roster with lottery picks over the past several years and needs veteran help, meaning that pick could be available as the draft approaches.