EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Monty Williams: Suns enter Orlando bubble with ‘Gladiator’ mindset

Jul 1, 2020, 12:29 PM | Updated: 1:54 pm
Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns yells from the bench during a 120-99 LA Clipper win at Staples C...
Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns yells from the bench during a 120-99 LA Clipper win at Staples Center on December 17, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Head coach Monty Williams said the Suns are not going to Disney World in Orlando to ride Space Mountain.

To that point, the Suns are also not going to the NBA’s 22-team bubble to feel good before prepping for 2020-21 or to treat a resumption from a coronavirus-suspended season like a Summer League opportunity — though it feels like the latter.

Phoenix is attacking an eight-game seeding schedule with the full intention of making the playoffs, even though the Suns restart the season 6.0 games out of the eighth seed with four teams also chasing the last playoff team in the current standings, the Memphis Grizzlies.

“We’re going down there to win games, I don’t know any other way to say it,” Williams said Wednesday on a Zoom call. “We’re not going to ride on Space Mountain and do the Disney thing. This is freaking ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Gladiator’ stuff that we’re trying to will on other teams, and that’s the mindset.

“We talked about embracing ‘hard’ for a long, long time … for months, since I’ve been here.”

In order to make the play-in phase of the resumption of the 2019-20 season, the Suns will have eight games to become the No. 9 need and be within 4.0 games of the No. 8 seed. The Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings are each 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies, while the San Antonio Spurs trail the eighth-place team by 4.0 games.

Odds simulators don’t like the Suns’ chances of leap-frogging all those opponents.

ESPN’s Kevin Pelton used predictive real plus-minus (RPM) to give the Suns 0.4% odds just to make the play-in round. The Ringer gives them a 1% shot of a play-in round berth and a mere 0.2% chance of making it to the standard postseason format.

So do they go into Orlando swinging with new schematic tweaks?

Or does Williams stick to an identity that gives a franchise a decade removed from its last postseason appearance the slimmest of odds?

A month after the NBA suspended the season March 11 with the Suns sitting at 26-39, Williams said that the hiatus allowed him to comb over tape and consider improvements. One potential change: Putting shooting guard Devin Booker more at point guard.

Whether Williams will feel comfortable making such drastic rotation tweaks for the eight-game stretch run isn’t clear.

The challenge is balancing getting his players back in sync with 4.5 months off by the start of the season while also considering making “offseason” adjustments.

“You may see some things that are a bit different, but that’s not just for the sake of being different,” Williams said. “It’s because we want to win games.”

Kelly Oubre Jr.’s decision to sit out the resumption of the season — Williams did not want to speak on the details of that as Oubre comes off meniscus surgery — also changes the complexion of the Suns. Dario Saric, Frank Kaminsky and Cam Johnson will likely assume more minutes.

The only new blood comes in the form of point guard Cameron Payne, who Williams said will enter the Orlando training camp with a chance to earn a rotation spot.

Outside of Oubre, all of the Suns are healthy and excited to play despite the shallow odds they can advance to the playoffs, Williams said.

Keeping them healthy amid a pandemic and coming off an oddly-timed break is Phoenix’s priority. But so too is treating this like a win-or-go-home-scenario.

“The way I look at it, it’s a new season,” Williams said. “I’m doing a lot of listening … so I don’t violate any of those protocols and put anybody in harm’s way.

“We obviously have a goal, which is to make the playoffs. I learned a long time ago you can’t skip steps. We’re dialed into today, being mindful of the workouts we have, giving guys a ton of information, reinforcing our language and vernacular and all the things we’ve emphasized with the goal in mind.”

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