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Monty Williams feels encouraged despite Suns’ 3-game skid

Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams, right, questions referee Michael Smith, left, about a play during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The long view expectations Monty Williams brought into the season didn’t change when his Phoenix Suns got off to a boiling-hot start. This was a process.

A three-game losing streak, then, won’t cause the first-year head coach to panic. If anything, it’s an opportunity to learn from new challenges caused by point guard Ricky Rubio’s and big man Aron Baynes’ injuries.

“I do feel encouraged immensely about our team,” Williams said Friday morning as he joined Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station. “We’re learning how to play a different way this past week, learning how to play zone.

“Playing zone more, switching more, and I think it’s going to bode well for us when we get D.A. (Deandre Ayton) back and Ricky and Ty (Jerome) and Aron. It hurts right now losing three in a row, but I’m encouraged by how we battled.”

The Suns fell to the New Orleans Pelicans 124-121 on Thursday night, two days after losing to the Sacramento Kings and three following a defeat at the hands of the Celtics.

In the past two games, Phoenix’s defense has dropped off considerably. Baynes, who was already filling in as the starter with Ayton suspended, has been missed most.

Frank Kaminsky has started in his place but doesn’t have the defensive chops or bulk to lead the backline. But nobody else on the roster brings those abilities, either.

Though Phoenix’s offense has remained top-tier, ranking sixth in the NBA at 110.4 points per 100 possessions, its defensive rating has tumbled to 14th at 106.4 allowed.

“The defense, it’s just been lacking, whether it’s points in the paint or last night we didn’t do as well as we wanted to in our switches,” Williams said.

“I have to do a better job of getting our team ready defensively even though we don’t have Aron or D.A. to man the middle. Schematically I have to give our guys a chance. We have guys who are willing to guard. To me it’s like, can we blitz more, can we deny him? I think with the changes we’ve had this week … it’s affected our guys. Guys who weren’t expected to play, they’ve moved up in the pecking order.”

Over the last two losses, Williams has gone more to second-year point guard Elie Okobo, who amid defensive slips has added scoring and off-the-bounce creation to the team. He scored 11 points and added seven assists in just 20 minutes Thursday.

In spurts, big man Cheick Diallo has given the Suns a changeup with more athleticism and length in the middle.

For Williams, getting a look at the backend of the roster is useful. And considering Phoenix has lost by only three and four points in its last two, it could be a lot worse.

“Anytime you have Devin, you feel like you got a shot,” Williams said. “There are moments in the game where there is frustration when we give up threes or we have our hands down on a contest when somebody’s shooting a three who we know is a hot shooter. Those things frustrate you.”

Again, it’s all a long view process.

“Winning early with somewhat of a full roster did not change my expectations of the team because I’m with our guys every day and I see the habits we have to improve upon,” Williams said.

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