Among the failures that set the table for the Phoenix Suns’ firing of coach Earl Watson were the rotations.
Spanning his interim tenure to the three games of 2017-18 before he was let go, Watson went from starting two centers to two small forwards. How he managed the rotation game-to-game or half-to-half was unpredictable throughout.
So it was shocking to watch interim coach Jay Triano roll out a traditional lineup in his first game, a 117-115 win over the Sacramento Kings on Monday. A 10-man rotation — plus five minutes for Jared Dudley in his debut — looked consistent over halves.
It wasn’t necessarily by design.
Triano said afterward he gave the bench unit extra run in the second half, simply, because it was playing well.
The new starter in the lineup, Marquese Chriss, scored 19 points to go with six rebounds and three blocks. He led the team with a plus-15 plus-minus. On both ends, it’s arguable he played one of his best five games as a Sun in his 86 games as a pro.
“I think that was something that Jay wanted from me,” Chriss said of his defense on FOX Sports Arizona after the game. “He told me that I’ve been playing a little lackadaisical and, you know, I take that personally because it’s something I don’t want to be known for. I don’t want to be known as a lazy player.”
Chriss entered the NBA after one year at Washington with a reputation as a sometimes lost, sometimes unfocused defensive player. He’s always been self-aware of that fact.
On Monday night, however, we saw the first bit of evidence of how he responds to taking blunt, honest criticism.
Triano went into detail about that communication Tuesday.
“The thing we talked about with Marquese was, I think Marquese went into the (first three games) thinking he would play so many minutes and he just kind of coasted a little bit,” Triano told Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station. “We just wanted a higher level in intensity when he was in the game. Play for five minutes as hard as you possibly can, get a break and come on out. When that five minutes moves to seven, you’ll be OK there. We talked about that with all of our players.
“One of the things I want to try to do is reward guys with playing time. They know they’re going to get back in, so if you want to keep your minutes, play hard.”
The blunt, clear criticism from Triano to Chriss came through in interviews spanning one day.
How many times did it in 118 games under Watson?
After the Suns’ 132-130 loss to the Lakers and Phoenix had allowed Los Angeles to knock down 46 percent from three, Watson was asked if there were any themes between that and the first game in which the Trail Blazers shot 58 percent from three.
The coach, who was adverse to negativity, wouldn’t suggest his team struggled in effort or struggled to execute on pick-and-rolls against rookie Lonzo Ball despite all the evidence to both of those things. Instead, he praised Ball, who did, by the way, have quite the game.
Before the Lakers game, Watson admitted he was still learning how to protect his young team.
“For me personally, I didn’t tell (the players) this, I have to do a better job of protecting them from distractions,” Watson said two days before being fired. “Our team is very sensitive to energy. Very. We’re young. Just the people we have, even the older vets are sensitive to energy.”
If Chriss’ response to Triano’s honesty is any sign, they perhaps aren’t as fragile as the outgoing coach thought.
Now it’s on Triano, who has already called the team’s conditioning a concern, to determine where to hold the young Suns most accountable: on the practice court or in games.
“Like today, I don’t know how hard we can practice today with a game tomorrow and the minutes that these guys play,” the interim coach told Doug & Wolf. “But at the same time, I don’t believe we’re in good enough condition to play with the intensity we need to play at moving forward.”
That’s honesty. It’s clearly communicated.
Now Triano’s challenge is determining how to navigate an NBA season while using those tools and playing time as motivational reward to help the Suns grow.
“It’s tough to figure out right now whether we’re going to be a grind-it-out practice team and not care about games and just care about development of players, or we’re going to compete, which is the number-one thing for these guys.”