For the second year in a row, the Phoenix Suns trailed by 30 points at halftime in a do-or-die playoff game at home. And for the second year in a row, the Suns went on to lose said game by double digits, leaving the NBA’s longest-tenured franchise without a championship facing some unpleasant questions.
In Phoenix’s 125-100 loss to the Denver Nuggets Thursday night, Monty Williams’ squad was once again eliminated in the second round, going out in embarrassing fashion in a Game 6 rout that was virtually decided by halftime.
“Yeah, that sucked,” Kevin Durant said bluntly. “It was a bad feeling. Embarrassing. They came out and hit us in the mouth, we couldn’t recover.”
Trailing 27-26 with three minutes left in the first quarter, the Suns watched as Denver closed the opening period on a 17-0 run to bury Phoenix in an 18-point hole. The Nuggets also closed the second quarter on a 21-6 run, giving 81 first-half points and a 30-point advantage identical to the one the Dallas Mavericks had built by halftime of Game 7 last year.
“It was deflating to just see them score like that, running down the floor, getting easy buckets,” Williams said. “That falls on my shoulders, not having us ready to play at the highest level in the biggest game of the year.”
Try as they might to get their spirit back, Denver’s unchecked scoring barrage, coupled with Phoenix’s cascade of missed shots, saw yet another deficit snowball in humiliating fashion. Some games require more thorough analysis and breakdowns, but Game 6 was pretty simple: The Nuggets were the better, deeper team, and they beat the Suns handily on both ends of the floor.
“It hurt big-time, especially with our team,” said Cam Payne, who finished with a playoff career-high 31 points. “And in front of the fans, like, that’s not us, especially after last year, we kind of did the same thing. It’s not a good feeling. I just wish it would have been closer, at least. Of course I want the win, but this just don’t look good.”
The natural followup question, of course, is what the Suns needed to do differently in order to approach win-or-go-home playoff games like the main character instead of some second act obstacle on that character’s journey. Asked why that’s been the case for two straight years now, Williams didn’t have an answer.
“I can’t gauge that,” he said. “I’m not quite sure if I can compare. They both bring bad feelings about the game and what you’re trying to accomplish. Neither day feels good.”
That’s not to suggest Williams is oblivious to the role he shares in his team’s failure. As a competitor, he said the first thing that happens after a loss is looking inward to figure out how he can be better. That’s what the next 24 hours — and probably the entire offseason — will be about.
“I take that personally, not having our team ready to play in the biggest game of the year,” Williams said. “That’s something that I pride myself on, and it just didn’t happen tonight. And so that’s something that I have to really take a deep look at everything I’m doing to allow us to be successful on these days.”
Owner Mat Ishbia’s most immediate question may be whether Williams is still the right coach for the job. The new owner doesn’t have ties to the current regime, and although this roster clearly didn’t have enough time to properly jell, a second-round exit decided in such humbling fashion — for the second year in a row, no less — may leave Williams’ future in doubt.
It’d be a shame to see one of the most successful tenures in franchise history come to such an unflattering end. In just four seasons, Williams moved up to fourth on the Suns’ all-time regular-season wins list and second on their playoff wins list. He oversaw one of the most drastic turnarounds in league history, an 8-0 NBA Bubble spree, an NBA Finals run and a franchise-best 64-win season. His role in developing this team’s culture, giving Devin Booker his first legitimate head coach and crafting the foundations of a top-10 offense and defense shouldn’t be lost on anyone.
With that being said, the Suns are under new management now, and back-to-back no-shows in elimination playoff games at home is a troubling trend. Parting with Williams wouldn’t be cheap, but if Ishbia is no longer interested in paying him like one of the association’s top coaches, he might just have to bite the bullet.
To be fair, Williams was hardly the Suns’ only — or even biggest — problem Thursday night. For all the talk about rotations and game plan, a head coach shouldn’t have to motivate his players to play with a pulse in an elimination playoff game.
There’s also little Williams could have done about his two superstars getting outplayed by the likes of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Devin Booker tallied just 12 points and 8 assists in 36 minutes on 4-of-13 shooting, capping off one of the greatest individual playoff runs in franchise history with back-to-back duds.
Booker hadn’t looked right since landing awkwardly in the first quarter of Game 5, and his shooting numbers since that moment (8-of-27) backed it up.
“I haven’t gotten a medical report on that, but I think he is dealing with some soreness,” Williams said. “Just watching him, he didn’t have that same pop, and he’s just too tough of a guy to admit when he’s feeling something. But there’s nothing official as far as an injury is concerned.”
This marks Booker’s third elimination game where he was quietly dealing with an injury to some degree, but no matter how much stock one decides to put in the severity of those injuries, his performances in must-win games leaves a lot to be desired. Not only are the Suns 0-3 in those scenarios, but Book has managed just 14.0 points per game on 30.6 percent shooting, tallying 15 assists to 12 turnovers.
No one can question Booker’s superstar status after the unbelievable postseason run he just had in carrying Phoenix, but when the Suns have been backed into a corner, this is now the third time he’s been unable to keep the team on his back. He left the locker room before media were allowed to enter Thursday night, though he is expected to speak during exit interviews on Friday.
Of course, it’s an unfair expectation for Booker to be a nightly supernova, which is part of the reason the Suns traded for Durant in the first place. Yet in his first postseason in the Valley, KD disappointed. His final numbers — 29.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game on .478/.333/.917 shooting splits — look a lot more impressive than they really were.
That was especially true in the Nuggets series, where Durant shot 42 percent or worse from the field in four of six games. He seemed to be forcing shots early, particularly when the Suns fell in a first-quarter hole. That was the case again Thursday night, and it felt like KD was pressing as he started the game 1-for-8.
“I just didn’t make shots,” he said. “It was all on me, to be honest. I feel like I prepared the right way. I took the shots that I wanted to take. Sometimes I probably rushed a lot of our looks, just playoffs, just trying to figure it out.”
Williams struggled to provide context for Durant’s shooting woes in the series too, adding it to his list of offseason evaluations to make.
“It’s a hard one to really understand this early after a loss,” he said. “Maybe it’s something that I’m doing or we’re doing, or maybe he just missed the shots that he’s accustomed to making. I’m not quite sure yet. It’s something that we’ll have to evaluate as we go forward.”
Moving forward, Durant’s performance begs the question whether the Suns gave up too much for him. After all, KD will turn 35 before the start of next season, and losing Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and four first-round draft picks was only an acceptable ransom when Durant was playing like the all-time great that he is.
The Suns didn’t get to see that version of KD as often as they needed. Coming off a 2022 playoff series where he was limited to 26.3 points per game on 38.6 percent shooting with the Brooklyn Nets, it’s only natural for some doubt to creep in about what Phoenix can expect from the aging star they mortgaged their future on.
Trading for Durant is still a move any organization makes 10 times out of 10, but the hope for Phoenix is that he simply got in his own head, against great defensive coverages from Denver, while playing on a team that didn’t get enough time on the floor together to truly mesh. Durant is a cerebral player, and it’s possible he was overthinking and trying to do too much for his new team.
“I just think he cares,” Williams said. “I think he wanted to bring this town something that it’s never had before. And that’s okay. If a guy’s upset about not making shots and not making plays, that’s fine. I’d rather him care and have that feeling than to not care. So I’m okay with that. I think it says a lot about who he is. He wanted this badly.”
For his part, Durant isn’t deflecting blame.
“If I provide context, it would just be looked at as an excuse,” he said. “We just gotta be better next year.”
The biggest question is what that future might look like, and who will be part of it. Failing to win a title in their first half-season together isn’t the end of the world, especially against a high-caliber Nuggets squad. But Phoenix will have limited flexibility to round out the roster this summer, and that task will be tricky considering how much the Suns need to restock their bench.
Aside from the futures of Williams and Jones in the front office, Jock Landale and Darius Bazley are restricted free agents, while Torrey Craig, Josh Okogie, Damion Lee, Bismack Biyombo, Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren are all unrestricted.
Chris Paul is owed $30.8 million, but only $15.8 million is guaranteed, casting more doubt on his future after he took a step back at age 38 and once again got hurt in the playoffs. Deandre Ayton missed Game 6 with a rib contusion that was reportedly affecting his ability to breathe, but even before that painful injury, he underwhelmed throughout Phoenix’s playoff run.
Outside of Booker and Durant, no one feels untouchable. It’ll be on Ishbia and whichever decision-makers remain to chart a course for one of the NBA’s best duos.
It may take some time for the dust to settle, since even Williams and Durant had a hard time assessing what the future holds in the wake of such a disappointing end to the season.
“It’s too hard to talk about that stuff right now,” Williams said. “It’s an emotional, tough loss. It’s hard for me to even see past today. I want to go in there and talk to the coaches, and we will re-evaluate as we go forward. But you’re right, this is two years in a row where we’ve lost in elimination games like this, and it’s just a bad feeling.”
Fortunately, with Durant under contract for three years, an offseason of change ahead, and more time to jell with Booker and whoever remains on the roster next season, KD is still optimistic about the Suns’ outlook.
“It’s hard right now to see what the future will hold for our team, but we got a good foundation, good infrastructure we can build on and move on from this and learn from it and get better from it,” Durant said. “I’m sure that as the summer and the offseason starts to progress, we’ll figure that out a little bit more.”
Durant emphasized that he doesn’t go into any situation unaware of what he’s getting himself into, so nothing outside of the nature of that Game 6 loss is blindsiding him now. He spoke highly of his experiences getting to know new teammates, playing for Williams and living in Phoenix in general:
“Just more reps to that and continue to keep building with one another,” he explained. “We need to understand each other on a different level — individually and as basketball players — and I think that’ll come. So we’ll see what happens. Definitely frustrating and disappointing and embarrassing to lose, but losses happen, and it’s about how you can get up and keep pushing and figuring out ways to become better.”
However, Durant isn’t naive enough to think this team will look the same a few months from now either.
“Obviously you always want to make tweaks regardless,” he said. “Whoever wins the championship this year, I’m sure they’re gonna try to add to their team too. I feel like every year, GMs’, coaches’, players’ job is to get better and find ways to adapt and become a better team. So I’m sure we’ll make adjustments.”
After yet another second-round exit, capped off by embarrassing effort and execution at home, the Suns’ high-pressure offseason of adjustments has officially begun.