EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
With top seed clinched, Suns forming plan on approach to closing stretch
PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns practiced on Saturday having already achieved the top goal for every contender with eight games still left to go in the regular season.
Clinching the NBA’s best record and homecourt for the whole run with win No. 60 on Thursday in Denver came over three weeks away from when the playoffs will start for them.
The inevitable discussion that now arrives is if Phoenix will go as small as decreasing minutes for its key players or go as big as giving some guys nights off.
To be clear with some required context, this is not what the Suns do and they’ve never believed in it. That goes for the coaches, sure, but especially the players. Just about every team across the league with All-Stars will rest players in certain situations, whether it’s the second game of a back-to-back or a lingering injury that needs a lesser workload.
But head coach Monty Williams has often cleverly referred to the term “load management” as being less about basketball for him and more about a trucking company in Texas.
With that said, these are now different circumstances. So how much will that change things, if at all?
“We’re trying to come up with a plan,” Williams said Saturday. “We had to get to this point. We’ve started with the process of talking to the medical team about what’s smart. At the same time, there’s an unreal balance there of being competitive, guys who have individual goals that they want to achieve and we understand that.
“It’s certainly unfamiliar territory for me. I’ve been a part of it as an assistant but never as a head coach. We’re going to be smart. There’s opportunity to rest guys. I think we have one back-to-back left so that might be an opportunity. We don’t know just yet.”
Williams succinctly put it as, “We want to be fresh when it’s time to be fresh but we don’t want to lose rhythm. That’s a delicate balance.”
He cited players like Chris Paul and Cam Johnson who will actually need to use these games to really exert themselves after returning from injuries so they are at the proper level of conditioning suited for the postseason. There are also other players Williams said that “have situations where we may pull back a little bit.”
The Suns’ plan will come together in the next couple of days, and it helps that the play-in tournament gives them a week off between games too if they need it.
The question is what the right plan is, and as Williams pointed out, it’s impossible to say what’s best.
“We want to keep our rhythm,” he said. “We want to keep the mindset and we want to keep the edge as we finish out this part of the season. And yet there’s the old adage of ‘you gotta be smart.’
“Trying to figure out, like, I asked all of the coaches with all of their experience what we should do and there was like four or five different answers and I don’t think there’s a right answer. I just think you have to weigh the pros and cons of sitting guys out but also try to figure out how they feel from day to day.”
We know how the players feel. Paul in the past has put it best by saying he’s already missed so many games in his career due to injury already, so why would he want to now if he doesn’t have to?
Deandre Ayton is with him on that.
“Hell no. Hell no,” Ayton said when the notion was brought up of needing to rest at this point of the season. “We working on us. When it comes to that sit down and all that. I mean, dude, how many times do you want us to sit down? D-Book was out, I was out four times, C was out, COVID, sickness — how many times you want us to be out? We tired of sitting down. I don’t want to sit down anymore. I’m tired of it. We feel like we got our rest.
“The league is doing this and we’re doing this,” Ayton said while motioning with his hands to indicate the league is trending downward and the Suns are trending upward. “Dudes working on their game every day, we in the weight room 24/7, off day was yesterday (and) we all in here lifting as a team. It’s crazy. We ramping up. We getting ready for playoffs. We ain’t thinking about no rest.”
Williams, however, pointed out that what some might view as “challenging” conversations to have with players will not be hard for him because he has built up a level of trust that goes both ways. He used the example of Paul coming out of games when he doesn’t want to or Williams sometimes keeping Paul out there when Paul says he feels good.
Williams has established that type of relationship with all his players when it comes to playing time, so if it needs to happen in either direction, it will without a hitch.
And as Ayton said, let’s not act like these eight games are absolutely useless.
“Seeing the rest of these dudes and finishing off this thing strong,” Ayton said. “Working on coverages that we might need against teams when we see them in the playoffs and try to sustain certain things that might be new for us in the playoffs as well. But these eight games, (we’re) gonna take advantage of these things and get ready fo’ sho’.”
To try and give you an idea of the players’ mindsets, you know what’s better than 60 wins?
“What we have, eight games left?” forward Torrey Craig asked. “Trying to get 68 wins, man!”