Fool me once, shame on me.
You know how that saying goes.
Following a second consecutive inexplicable, humiliating season-ending home playoff loss, the new Phoenix Suns owner made the decision to fire coach Monty Williams.
In the postgame presser after a disastrous season-ending 123-90 loss home to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2022 Western Conference Semifinals, that was the two-word answer Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams gave to a reporter when asked why Deandre Ayton played just 18 minutes.
While we do not know the full story, one thing that has been internal for the Suns is the pressure, scrutiny, and scandal the organization has faced over the last 12 months.
Just days shy of one year since that season-ending defeat, new Suns owner Mat Ishbia saw enough when history repeated itself in the semifinals against the Denver Nuggets.
The Suns fell flat, and then some, in Game 6 of the conference semifinals, losing 125-100 in Phoenix on Thursday night.
With three minutes left in the opening quarter, the Suns trailed 27-26. That proved to be the beginning of the end.
Just seconds later, backup Center Bismack Biyombo had his hands on Nikola Jokic with the Nuggets inbounding under their basket. Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope comes over to take attention off of Jokic, and Biyombo fouls KCP. Since the foul occurred before the inbound, Caldwell-Pope was awarded a one-shot technical free throw.
On the next possession, 36-year-old Jeff Green jumps in the air and passes the ball to Jokic, who, in one swift move, laterals the ball to KCP in the corner. He drains a three-pointer.
That sequence kicked off a 17-0 run to end the quarter.
The closest the Suns would get would be 15 points with 6:41 remaining in the second quarter.
“It happened pretty fast”, said Kevin Durant in the postgame. “It’s hard to get going as a team if you’re giving up that many points, 44 in the first quarter, 37 in the second, 81 points in the half. It’s tough to get going.”
“Deflating” was the word that Monty Williams used when talking about the way Denver scored at will in the first half.
While the two games cannot be compared because of roster differences, the Suns have lost consecutive home elimination games in the playoffs by a combined 58 points.
A number like that is almost unthinkable in professional basketball. At least real-life professional basketball, as opposed to a video game set on easy mode (or All-Star mode in the Suns’ case).
Deandre Ayton was out. Chris Paul was out. Devin Booker was hampered by a foot injury.
It is worth noting that even before Ayton’s injury, through the first five games of the series, fellow backup Center Jock Landale played significantly more fourth quarter minutes than Ayton.
We did not get any “it’s internal comments” after this latest series with Denver, but that comment nearly a year ago to date was a part of several challenges the Suns would face.
Their young big was a restricted free agent and Phoenix was running out of time, having used an option on him in that 2021-22 season. The Suns showed little to no urgency to get a deal done, to the point where the Indiana Pacers put down an offer sheet. It seemed clear that Phoenix was not ready to offer Ayton a max contract extension, but they also that they could not lose their 22-year-old number one overall pick for nothing, so they matched the offer to keep Ayton in the desert.
The offseason quieted down from there, but a dark cloud would move over the franchise at the start of the 2022-23 season, with an ESPN report from Baxter Holmes about allegations against then-owner Robert Sarver.
Facing basketball-related pressure to get back to the NBA Finals and more serious real-life trauma stemming from racial and sexual misconduct allegations, we are quickly reminded of human nature. All of this noise, tension, etc. is enough to weigh on anyone, professional athlete or coach or otherwise.
Even on that basketball side, the regular season feels longer and longer when the focus is set on making a playoff run with this roster as constructed. Chris Paul is approaching 40. Kevin Durant is 34, but is coming off of injuries, and has plenty of miles on him. No one knows how much longer Ayton will be in Phoenix, though it is worth noting that he cannot be traded before mid-January 2024.
The bottom line is this: even as the Suns have made this climb back into NBA relevance, the club has faced plenty of headwinds along the way.
Phoenix went 8-0 in the Orlando “bubble” to end the COVID-shorted regular season in 2020. The very next year, they advanced to the NBA Finals. This team captured the hearts and attention of fans, analysts, and teams around the league.
But we all know that excuses do not fly in the harsh, unforgiving business world of professional sports.
Everything you do, or do not do, gets boiled down to wins and losses.
When the pressure has been on, the Suns’ last three season-ending losses have gone as follows:
2021: Bucks 105 Suns 98, Game 6, NBA Finals (Bucs win four straight games with Giannis dropping a 50-burger to punctuate the series)
2022: Mavericks 123 Suns 90, Game 7, Western Conference Semifinals (Phoenix was held to 27 points in the first half on their home floor)
2023: Nuggets 125 Suns 100, Game 6, Western Conference Semifinals in Phoenix
There is a lot to like and appreciate about Monty Williams. If he wants to stay in coaching, he will likely have offers to choose from.
But in basketball, the ball doesn’t lie and neither do those scores. They will put pressure on team leadership to make changes every time. And 99 times out of 100, the coach is the first to go.