The Suns are in trouble but Monty Williams knows what true darkness is

Phoenix have taken a battering by Milwaukee in the last two games of the NBA finals. But their coach has overcome grief and adversity to get here

Time has not been kind to the Phoenix Suns. Seven days ago they appeared to be on an inexorable march toward their first championship in franchise history while slapping the Milwaukee Bucks with double-digits losses and reducing Giannis Antetokounmpo to a one-man band. But since the series migrated from Phoenix to Milwaukee, the home team hasn’t just come alive behind Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and other supporting players; the Greek has been at his freakiest – pouring in a combined 61 points (on 60% shooting), 27 rebounds and a lead-preserving block in Game 4.

Now a pivotal Game 5 looms on Saturday in Phoenix with the series tied at 2-2. The Bucks have all the momentum, while the home team could well slide into an irrecoverable position if the visitors should manage to steal one on the road, given the 82% rate at which Game 5 victors go on to take the whole chalupa. With their season at a dark hour, the Suns suddenly find themselves backpedaling toward the wall. But if there’s anyone who can get them moving forward again, it’s Monty Williams.

No disrespect to Tom Thibodeau, who deserves a key to New York City for whipping the woebegone Knicks into a playoff team, but it should have been Williams who was named the NBA’s coach of the year.

Williams, for his part, was gracious in defeat, joking “I’m grateful to have a job in this economy” – a loaded punchline to be sure. And while, again, there’s no denying Thibodeau’s miracle on 34th street, especially given the organization’s singular fetish for self-harm, remember: two years ago, Phoenix was the furthest thing from a dream job when it finally fell to the 49-year-old Williams, a former utility swingman whose nine-year playing odyssey began in New York as a first-round pick out of Notre Dame. If anything, Williams, who guided the New Orleans Pelicans for five disappointing seasons, risked inflicting further harm on his 44% coaching record as the Suns sat 13 games under .500 in March of last year. But then something happened on the Suns’ way to the NBA cellar: Covid-19.

After a two-month break, the NBA season restarted inside a tight bubble in Orlando. And Williams’s Suns, their losing record notwithstanding, proved just good enough in the West to justify an invitation into the NBA’s playoff seeding tournament inside the Orlando bubble. There, the Suns quickly became all the rage, ticking off wins in all eight of the games with a Mouseketeer-aged cast that included top rookie Deandre Ayton, second-year forward Mikal Bridges and first-time All-Star Devin Booker.

When Chris Paul was added to that crew via an offseason exchange with Oklahoma City, it seemed as if the Suns would’ve been better off trading for Cliff Paul given the haul of young players they gave away for the aging point god’s draft rights. But all Paul did was transform the Suns from a flash in the pan to the NBA’s second-best team over the course of a full season, while distinguishing himself as a darkhorse candidate for league MVP.

And yet: the surprise success becomes less so when you realize that Paul and Williams overlapped during the 2010-11 season in New Orleans. At the time Paul was the frustrated superstar with a wandering eye toward greener pastures (remember that Lakers trade that got nixed?), and Williams was the league’s youngest head coach, a 38-year-old rookie seven seasons removed from his own playing career – with a point to prove. Williams was too tough, Paul so stubborn. And yet underneath all that clashing, was an undeniable chemistry. A 46-36 record, good enough for a seven seed in the playoffs, was the proof.

But of course their particular bond, which was hard to miss in the cathartic bear hug Williams and Paul shared on-court after besting the Clippers in the conference championships, runs deeper than mere wins and losses. And it held Williams together in the dark hours after a driver high on methamphetamines crossed the center line of a downtown Oklahoma City street and smashed headfirst into an oncoming car in February 2016; at the wheel was his wife of 20 years, Ingrid, who died from her injuries. Among other loved ones she left behind five children, including three who miraculously survived the crash. At her memorial service Williams delivered a brave and stirring eulogy that saw him acknowledge his emotional ache while releasing himself from any bitterness toward the driver’s family, even as anger and grief encroached. “This will work out,” said Williams, the Thunder’s associate head coach at the time. “Doesn’t mean it’s not hard. Doesn’t mean it’s not painful. Doesn’t mean we don’t have tough times.”

Williams even stepped away from coaching to be a ballast for a brood he affectionately referred to in his remarks as his five “crumb snatchers.” To keep ends meeting he took a job with the San Antonio Spurs, his former team, as VP of basketball ops. In between Williams ferried the crumb snatchers to and from church and school and their extracurriculars when he wasn’t fixing dinners, folding laundry or otherwise coming to grips with Ingrid’s enormous contributions to their family.

It took a two-year hiatus from Xs and Os for Williams to finally feel comfortable enough to leave the Spurs front office and join the Philadelphia 76ers coaching staff. He lasted a season on their bench before the Suns scooped him up. In a league where Black coaches are as scarce as Black players are abundant, this was not business as usual. In Phoenix, however, he reports to James Jones – a former title winning player in Miami who, with Williams, make the NBA’s rare Black coach-Black GM combo.

But to dismiss Williams as some sort of affirmative action hire is to gloss over the time he’s shaved off of the Suns already breakneck “Seven Seconds or Less” offense with an ever-shifting rotation and also to forget that Williams did just buzz through the Nuggets and both LA teams to reach this inflection point in the postseason. What’s more, his sideline manner has come a long way.

That was never clearer than in the middle of the fourth quarter of Game 2, as Ayton flogged himself for mishandling his defensive assignment on Antetokounmpo – even though the Suns were still leading. “Look at me,” he told his sulking young center, his heart-to-heart caught on ABC TV. “You set a high level for yourself. That’s why you’re [feeling] down. That’s great. Now go reach that level, OK? And you can reach it with force. Doesn’t have to be stats all the time. Go dominate the game with force.”

The pep talk had many across the country – not all of them Suns fans – leaping from seats, ready to run through fire for Williams. And damned if Ayton didn’t come through for his coach in the end. As cliché as it has become to brand today’s good-guy sportsman as a winner on and off the court, with Williams it’s more than platitude. It’s no coincidence that the Suns, an organization that once rivaled the Knicks for dysfunction, suddenly find themselves back in the finals after 30 years with Williams at the helm.

Though the present hour might look dark, in Williams’s view, this moment is likely no more menacing than a passing shadow. He’s seen his way through worse and, somehow, always seems to reemerge from the darkness so much stronger.


Andrew Lawrence

The GuardianTramp

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