After a decade of shortcomings and mediocrity, the Phoenix Suns are just four wins away from the first NBA title in franchise history.
That's what we call a culture shift, and it's something that began a little over two years ago when Monty Williams was appointed as the franchise's fifth head coach in a five-year span. Upon Williams' introduction, it became clear that the franchise had gotten this one right.
"The players are going to have to embrace a level of work and commitment that it takes to be a champion," Williams said during his introductory press conference on May 21, 2019. "That doesn't necessarily mean we're going to win a championship. This organization has won the fifth-most games in NBA history. That's a huge thing. You enter the 52nd year, maybe we've lost lustre but the tradition is still there."
Despite a rocky start, the tradition was certainly restored.
After a blowout win in the 2019-20 season opener, Williams and the Suns were forced to play the next 25 games without former No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton, who was serving a league-mandated suspension. Despite being without their star big man, the team continued to hover around .500 while earning culture-building wins, one of which I witnessed firsthand.
On Dec. 2, 2019, the Ayton-less Suns began a four-game road trip with a stop in Charlotte to take on the Hornets. After an all-around rough night, Phoenix trailed by seven points with 71 seconds remaining in the game, but it didn't quit.
The Suns dug deep and closed the game on a 12-0 run to earn a five-point win to get things started on the right foot.
When opportunity knocks, you answer.#RisePHX pic.twitter.com/hD4XXgkVxf- Phoenix Suns (@Suns) December 3, 2019
That's toughness- Phoenix Suns (@Suns) December 3, 2019
🗣 Preach, Coach! pic.twitter.com/WUpPACuFFv
Having the privilege of getting to know Coach Williams during the time that he and my dad were both with the New Orleans Hornets, I briefly spoke with him after the game. While he was genuinely much more interested in how my family and I were doing, I made sure to acknowledge that I could tell that something special was brewing in Phoenix, to which he humbly replied something to the tune of, "we're trying."
Fast forward seven months to the NBA Restart, and many scoffed at the idea of the 26-39 Suns earning an invite. To even have a chance at qualifying for the postseason, they'd have to go 8-0 and get a lot of help from a number of other teams.
It seemed far-fetched, but after Devin Booker's now-iconic game-winner over the LA Clippers, even I thought that Phoenix had a real shot at running the table, largely based on the way Williams had been able to lead this team.
In retrospect, the Suns' perfect run coming up short in the bubble is a major stepping stone to where they are now, but it could have easily been just as discouraging for a young team. I look directly to Williams' words following Phoenix's last game in Orlando as a reason why this unit left encouraged rather than discouraged.
🗣️ RESPECT#WhyNotUs pic.twitter.com/M9OO17SlAn- Phoenix Suns (@Suns) August 13, 2020
"You've gained the respect of the league. Now, you've got to build on it." Williams told his team. "We've got to get to the point where we control it, you understand that? You want to be the type of team that controls your own destiny, OK? That's our next step."
Phoenix became an attractive destination in the process, prompting Chris Paul to give the OK to the deal that reunited him with his former head coach. He followed that by recruiting Jae Crowder to the Suns, and he's clearly proven to be a key addition via free agency.
And although many expected them to be a playoff team, not many outside of the Suns' locker room could have predicted the run that we've seen up to this point, and plenty of credit goes to their lead man on the sidelines.
From the moment they departed the bubble, they controlled their own destiny, resulting in a 51-21 record and the West's No. 2 seed.
With the talk of Williams' motivational words, it can't be lost that he's been a maestro with the Xs and Os as well. It didn't take very long for him to make the most of the talent he has on hand. Early in the season, NBA.com's Scott Rafferty looked at a specific set in which Williams sets up Booker, Paul and Ayton in positions to be a threat at the same time.
It might not be unstoppable, but it's pretty close.
There's also the fact that Williams has helped the Suns orchestrate one of the best defences in the league throughout the regular season and these playoffs and, of course, drew up the brilliant "Valley-Oop" that changed the entire outlook of the Western Conference Finals in two-tenths of a second.
Oh yeah, Rafferty broke that one down, too.
With the perfect blend of motivation and strategy, Williams continues to resonate with his team while getting them to embrace the championship-level work ethic and commitment that he spoke of in May 2019. Now, the 2021 NBCA Coach of the Year leads his team to their hardest challenge yet: an NBA Finals date with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Monty: "Chris, you're going to the Finals."- ESPN (@espn) July 3, 2021
CP3: "Coach, I'm trying to calm down, coach."
Monty: "You don't have to calm down."
This moment between CP3 and Monty Williams at the end of Game 6 is beautiful ❤️
(via @NBA) pic.twitter.com/SBqmrFjHJl
Seeing that Williams has instilled in his team that "everything you want is on the other side of hard," the group will be ready to vie for the ultimate prize.
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