The Suns have hardened themselves amid Robert Sarver probe, Finals heartbreak and Deandre Ayton's contract issues

PHOENIX — The smell of Champagne and cigars, the noise and rambunctiousness of the victorious Milwaukee Bucks met Monty Williams last July, running into the newly crowned Giannis Antetokounmpo in the hallway shortly after Williams’ Game 6 news conference.

“Coach, let’s run it back next year,” Antetokounmpo said to Williams as the Phoenix Suns coach graciously congratulated the NBA Finals MVP.

He barely had time to process the heartache before seeing the one-man force who nearly single-handedly erased a 2-0 deficit, and had to be gracious.

Williams wanted to extend that notion to Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer and his staff, and with Antetokounmpo, headed toward what he thought was the coach’s office inside Fiserv Forum.

He saw Larry Brown and the Detroit Pistons' staff come into Gregg Popovich’s office following Game 7 of the 2005 Finals and wanted to do the same thing. Except Antetokounmpo led him into the celebration of the Bucks’ locker room, producing a classy moment Williams wasn’t intending to create.

“He had the trophy right there, and this really hurt. It’s enough to lose, then I gotta run into him in the hallway,” Williams told Yahoo Sports with a laugh. “Then Giannis took me into the locker room, and I’m like, ‘Holy smokes.’ It was like 100 people in there. And whatever I said, I said and I was trying to get out of there.

“I wasn’t trying to be saintly or pious. It just happened. Giannis was just excited. Then I heard about it the next couple days and I’m like, people are giving me way too much credit.”

It went along with the Monty Williams story, and the story of those Phoenix Suns last season. The come-from-nowhere squad that made the best of every break possible but not a true champion — losing shouldn’t hurt as much when you’re not supposed to be there.

But it stings, still. Williams hasn’t watched the clinching Game 6 yet, and chuckled when told Devin Booker watches the series all the time searching for the small nuances.

“77-77, beginning of the fourth quarter,” Williams said. “That will be in my head for a long, long time. You make decisions that work, you make some that don’t.”

The phone calls came in as Williams was trying to process the heartbreak in the immediate aftermath: Nate McMillan, Doc Rivers, Popovich. McMillan, Williams said, “set him straight.”

“I was feeling sorry for myself,” Williams said. “He was like, ‘Man, cut it out. What would you change?’ I said, ‘Not much.’ He went straight big brother mode on me. Right at my throat.”

Popovich’s message: “Don’t beat yourself up.”

Rivers’: “Pressure is a privilege. You got a chance to be in the highest pressure situation in the NBA. And you were right there. And that’s a privilege.”

From there, Williams started to decompress, even if he couldn’t completely wash the Finals off him. He fished from a river behind his home in Texas, spent time with his children and new wife, starting to look ahead.

Cutouts of Deandre Ayton, Chris Paul, Devin Booker and coach Monty Williams on a purple and orange background.
The Phoenix Suns have turned around an also-ran franchise into a contender through maturity, experience and the leadership of, from left, Deandre Ayton, Chris Paul, Devin Booker and coach Monty Williams. (Graphic by Erick Parra Monroy/Yahoo Sports)

Suns' leadership comes through maturity, experience

The Suns are a league-best 26-5, a versatile mix of veterans close to their primes and young players barely scratching the surface of their potential. Williams is a reluctant face of the franchise, often deflecting praise to the players while pressing for more.

Chris Paul and Jae Crowder have the runway to be vocal leaders, and while in his earlier coaching days Williams used to run the scrimmages and even participate, he steps away now — more like a CEO than a micromanager.

Williams almost sounds like Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin’s “We need volunteers, not hostages” when he says, “My leadership is to promote leaders, not followers. If I’m out front all the time, I’m not giving them [players and coaches] oxygen to lead.”

He noticed Booker on the sideline during his seven-game hamstring injury absence, being vocal to his teammates, particularly in Portland recently. Motivating, prodding. Booker was getting closer to returning, so he was probably more antsy.

“It’s the worst feeling to miss games,” Booker told Yahoo Sports. “The only way I can stay involved is to talk like I’m out there.”

And when he is out there, he’s one of the league’s premier shotmakers. Paul is an unquestioned leader, but Booker moves in his own space and often is a drought-breaker.

Only Antetokounmpo scored more than Booker’s 28.2 points per game in the Finals, with Booker pouring in at least 40 in Games 4 and 5. Perhaps unfairly, there was talk Booker’s scoring outbursts came at the expense of his teammates when it looked like Booker was doing what he has always done: get buckets.

“I’ve never heard that, to be completely honest,” Booker said. “We’re at the highest stage. We all have a job on this team and every game is different. Sometimes they force you to be aggressive.”

If there was a signature play during the series, it was Booker’s pinpoint lob to Deandre Ayton in the final 90 seconds of Game 4 that was blocked by Antetokounmpo, helping seal the series-tying victory.

Booker wouldn’t specifically say that’s the play he watches most, but it felt like it.

“I don’t wanna give the game plan away that defeated us, but it’s the little things,” Booker said. “A lot of rebounds, a lot of positioning, a lot of communication.” But, Booker said, the gratification of getting that far illuminated something very clear.

“Can a team beat us four out of seven times?” Booker said. “We try not to beat ourselves. We try to limit that, and that comes from being on a mature team.”

The formula appears simple on paper, but is nearly impossible to execute: The Suns don’t beat themselves, they share the ball and take advantages of the small openings to win. It worked to the tune of 18 straight wins after a 1-3 start, with many salivating over the thought of a Suns-Warriors conference final.

“Maturity. We’ve been through this whole league and we know what our bad tendencies are,” Ayton told Yahoo Sports. “If we play through the motions, that tends to bite you in the ass. This year? No games played. We’re not throwing blows then let up. If there’s any let up, we got leaders who’ll say, ‘Wake up.’ ”

They play more consistently to their character better and longer than any team this side of Golden State, and perhaps even including the Warriors. Their recent 18-point win over the Los Angeles Lakers was methodical and seemingly inevitable from the start. They’re as disciplined as anyone, and even if you keep up, you’ll break before they do.

But they’re often an afterthought on the national radar, at least that’s what they believe. It’s not a “woe is us” mindset, but it’s noticeable other teams, bigger brands get more attention — even when the Suns are on the other side of the conversation.

“Sometimes you get a little irritated when certain people are talking on TV because they push the same narrative around,” Williams said. “Doesn’t matter what other teams do, these guys push the same teams all the time.

“You know, we can sit here and act like you don’t want the attention. You don’t want people to notice what you’re doing. But that would be a lie.”

How the Suns walled team off from Robert Sarver scandal, noise

The prevailing conversation surrounding the Suns has had nothing to do with basketball, and it’s the biggest story in the league next to COVID-19.

Suns owner Robert Sarver is under investigation by the NBA after strong accusations of racism and misogyny unveiled in an story weeks ago. That has seemingly cast a shadow over the resurgence of a franchise that used to be a powerhouse in the West before going dormant for years.

Williams addressed the story in early November, and even though it had nothing to do with him, the respect he has earned around the league spoke volumes in a tumultuous moment.

“Based on what you know about me, the little you know about me, if any of that stuff happened while I was here, I wouldn’t be in this seat,” he said that night.

When he gathered his team, Williams encouraged the players to be vulnerable about it, and called their practice facility a safe space. Not just from this potential scandal, but from anything in the outside world.

“We were never going to let anything outside this gym, wins or losses, affect our culture,” Williams told Yahoo Sports. “From Day 1, we said that. And it’s given us an anchor as far as the building is concerned.

“Social justice issues, if you have a personal thing going on in the organization, we were going to be aware of it and sensitive to it. When we come here, the culture is gonna be the same. And every one of them have adopted that.”

Williams is held in high moral regard around the league, but he doesn’t lean into it publicly, hence correcting the story of going into the Bucks’ locker room. It stems largely from the handling of his first wife’s death in 2016. Ingrid Williams died in Oklahoma City (where Williams was an assistant coach) in a car accident when she was hit head-on by a car that crossed over the center lane. Three of their five children were in the car, but all survived.

Williams spoke emotionally and poignantly at her funeral.

“We didn’t lose her. When you lose something, you can’t find it. I know where my wife is,” he said that day.

He remarried years later, and that perspective helped re-center him — seemingly, it always does.

“My kids have been through the worst of the worst and they’re thriving. I have a new wife that is an angel,” he said.

“All of that is hard. The hard things in life. I tell our players all the time, everything you want is on the other side of hard. Leadership is really based on that, hard decisions and situations. My family is in a good spot, I’m blessed beyond measure. You sit back and count your blessings.”

It’s a message that has been consistent, one stressed from the first day he met with Booker. Booker looked him in the eye and said, “Anything you need from me, I’ll do it.”

Booker was one of the few players still around since Williams took over in May 2019, having gone though all types of organizational upheaval and plenty of losing. The Sarver saga was just one more — albeit in the throes of team success.

“We communicate amongst each other, and we do a good job of keeping it that way,” Booker told Yahoo Sports. “We block out all the nonsense and control the controllables. So anything out of our hands, our reach, that has nothing to do with us even though it might seem like it … there’s a bunch of things going on.

“We do a good job of simplifying it, and we’ve been doing that since everything jumped off. COVID, the investigation, everything.”

As much as that stems from Williams, the players have their own maturity. Paul organizes team dinners, and assistant coach Jarrett Jack, a recently retired player, often serves as a translator for Williams — and the players — to bridge the generational gap to ensure messages don’t get lost.

Why Monty Williams feels 'somewhat responsible' for Deandre Ayton not getting deal

When Ayton couldn’t come to terms on an extension with the Suns before the start of this season — after draftmates Luka Doncic and Trae Young agreed to supermax deals with their respective teams — Ayton was playfully ribbed by his teammates about it.

There could’ve been contentious, awkward moments in the locker room. Mikal Bridges signed an extension, and the Suns brought in Landry Shamet in free agency. Ayton is the defensive anchor and easily could’ve taken the “go for mine” route that’s seen and often understood.

“We laugh about it. Because it ain’t that serious to me,” Ayton said. “I don’t play for that, you feel me? I’m a competitor, I’m a young dude who loves to compete in this league and I want to be the best.

“To be honest, I’ve never been in a situation where I got a contract or whatever. I don’t know how that feels. So all that toxic stuff about not getting it? So what? It didn’t work. Life goes on.”

It goes against an unspoken creed of team sports: Sacrifice individual success for the greater good and when team success comes, the rewards will follow. Ayton began each playoff series with a 20-point outing, with double-doubles in all but the conference finals against the Los Angeles Clippers.

He’s as active as Bridges and Crowder defensively and loves to be switched out on guards who think they can use their quickness to beat him off the dribble. If anyone had slight success against the runaway train that was Antetokounmpo in the Finals, it was Ayton.

For those reasons, Williams empathizes with his center, even though he hasn’t directly expressed it.

Deandre Ayton puts his arm up to defend a shot by Brook Lopez.
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton defends Milwaukee Bucks big Brook Lopez during Game 6 of the 2021 NBA Finals at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

“When you win as much as we did, and you make it to the Finals, I personally could see why he feels disrespected,” Williams said. “And I've never shared that with him. I would be.”

Williams said he feels “somewhat responsible” for Ayton not getting his deal done, even though he’s not part of the negotiations between Ayton and the front office and team ownership.

“From a personal perspective, I feel like I failed him,” Williams said. “Because when we asked you to do all that we ask you to do and you go out there and do it and you still don't get what you want, that falls on my plate.

“Let’s be real. Coaches survive in this league by winning. That’s a fact. And so when those guys did what they did for the team, they elevated me, which is what I didn't deserve. So I wanted him to get everything he wanted. And I think he still will.

“How do players survive? Stats. Yet we’re asking people to sacrifice their stats, touches and all that.”

Williams called it “the business” and lamented the widespread belief that the Suns organization doesn’t value Ayton, but routinely applauds Ayton for his approach.

“The thing I’ll say about him, he has not changed his game one bit. He still plays unselfish basketball, he still does everything he did last year, he’s just better,” Williams said.

Ayton said Williams didn’t have to relay the message to him, due to their foundation. When Ayton was notified after the 2019-20 season opener he would be suspended 25 games for violating the NBA/NBPA Anti-Drug Program by testing positive for a diuretic, he went to Williams’ hotel room to tell him.

“He told me, ‘Listen here young buck, only thing you can do is find your right next step,’ and that stuck with me for the rest of my life. Since we’ve been together, right next step,” Ayton said. “What’s your right next move? OK, you feel the pain, the consequences. You didn’t get your contract, what’s your right next step?”

It’s been to pick himself up, acknowledge everything and go out and perform to make his case unassailable.

“I’ve been suspended, I’ve been in scandals in college,” Ayton said. “Your back [has] been against the wall so many times. What can you possibly do? You don't want to engage into the b.s., because when you engage in it, they still gonna judge you. You know, I'm saying the best thing I could do is just come in here and work.”

Ayton has a booming voice yet is still soft-spoken, but is clear when he proclaims he wants to be the best two-way big man in the game. The No. 1 pick in 2018 hasn’t garnered the consistent attention of Doncic and Young, but he has averaged a double-double every season and is up to 17.0 points and 11.3 rebounds on 62% shooting in under 31 minutes this season.

His win shares per 48 minutes — a statistic that rates a player’s contribution to winning — ranks 13th, directly behind Stephen Curry and a few spots away from Kevin Durant. The West is quietly crowded with quality bigs: the MVP in Denver, Nikola Jokic; Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Utah's Rudy Gobert.

Jokic destroyed Portland in Round 1 before Ayton brought him back to Earth as the Suns swept the shorthanded Nuggets in the semifinals. Ayton and Booker watch games from that magical run, both picking apart the mistakes, but also reliving the moment.

“I’m looking at like, ‘That's us.’ Me, D-Book, Mikal, we won 19 games our first season together, now we’re in the NBA Finals,” Ayton said.

Devin Booker slaps hands with Deandre Ayton.
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker high-fives Deandre Ayton during a game at Footprint Center on Oct. 20, 2021 in Phoenix. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

What the Suns learned from surprising Orlando bubble run

Ayton still remembers the same smell of the Champagne in Milwaukee, but the more dominant and telling sense is the “pop” in the gym from two seasons ago in Orlando. The Suns entered the bubble with a very slim chance of qualifying for the playoffs.

They held optional practices in addition to their regular practices, and initially there were six guys as others were going through COVID-19 testing, but from the energy “you would’ve thought we had 30 guys there, it was unbelievable,” Williams said.

The Suns, who had nine or 10 every night, shared a gym with another team that Williams wouldn’t name, but said they had “two or three.”

“And you could see them looking at us work. And we were, like, having practice,” Williams said. “And that’s when I thought, ‘This is turning into something more special than I thought.’ We hadn’t done anything yet. But you could see the seeds.”

Surprisingly, the Suns went 8-0, but couldn’t sneak into the playoffs. The standard was set, though.

“They wanted to be in the gym, around each other. If I had to look at like a segment, it was that time in the bubble,” Williams said. “Sometimes it was like nine o’clock. And our guys were like, ‘What else we gonna do, Coach? We’re gonna eat, play video games and watch movies? How about go to the gym and get better?’ ”

Adding the ultimate leader in Paul stabilized them, and the mix of ages allowed growth from osmosis. Cameron Payne learned from Paul, no longer going fast and nowhere but being patient and tricky. Crowder rubbed off on Bridges, a player who can fit on any team with his low-maintenance approach.

Even Ayton picked up tricks from JaVale McGee, who is a grizzled veteran nowadays. It feels like the Suns are the deepest team in the league, capable of molding into whatever the moment calls for while being true to themselves.

To a man, they wouldn’t deny wanting a shot at Golden State if it came to it. Golden State was once where the Suns are now, fighting for validation.

“When I was growing up and there’s two teams hooping at the top of the NBA, I wanted to see that matchup, so it’s fun to be part of that,” Booker said.

Said Ayton of the Warriors, “that’s my Christmas Day gift. That’s my present. I’m dead serious. Them dudes are nice, you got the MVP [Curry] on that team. We won’t play with them, they won’t play with us.”

But like Williams warned his team before its first-round thrashing of the Lakers last spring, it applies to these Warriors, too: “It’s like fighting Ali. You won’t win it on the cards, you gotta knock the champ out.”