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There were a number of basketball-related takeaways that could be found in the Phoenix Suns’ 113-110 loss to the Washington Wizards Tuesday night.
The main focus could’ve been Phoenix’s continued slippage on the defensive end, since the Suns gave up 25 points in the final 5:35 of game time and have ranked 24th in defensive rating in the month of December.
There were conversations to be had about Landry Shamet’s career-high 31 points, Chris Paul’s injury scare, or how Deandre Ayton has looked in the last two games as more of an offensive hub while Devin Booker remains sidelined.
But instead, all anyone wanted to talk about was yet another heated exchange between Ayton and coach Monty Williams in the huddle.
Because of course it was.
— Goober222 (@Goober2221) December 21, 2022
Granted, that video by itself doesn’t look great! Williams is clearly animated about something DA said, gesturing in his direction and then in another player’s direction for emphasis. Considering their infamous flareup in the Suns’ Game 7 massacre just a few months ago, it was easy to speculate what this latest disagreement might have stemmed from.
Was Ayton upset about not getting enough touches? Unlikely, since Phoenix ran a ton of offense through him and he finished with 20 field goal attempts, which would’ve been a team high if not for Shamet piling on much-needed 3s at the very end.
Was it about leaving Ayton on the bench for too long between his third-quarter rest and his fourth-quarter return? Possibly, but the gesturing suggested it was something more tactical or personnel-driven. Williams probably waited a minute too long to bring DA back, but Bismack Biyombo had just finished a monster alley-oop that brought the crowd to its feet and gave Phoenix a 10-point lead.
Was it simply a case of offseason tensions bubbling beneath the surface until finally boiling over in the heat of a bad loss to a Wizards team that had dropped 10 straight games? Does Ayton really want out? Are he and his coach just destined to be on a fatal collision course??
Twitter and the national media certainly approached the situation with that type of sensationalism.
"Right now, it's not working. They're going to win a lot of games cause they got talent, but they're not even close to being a championship contender anymore."
Chuck reacts to the Suns' heated bench exchange in loss to the Wizards pic.twitter.com/N6ge10nYmX
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) December 21, 2022
Look, no one is going to suggest this Suns loss was anything other than ugly. Questions needed to be asked about the exchange in the huddle as well. But rather than immediately jumping to conclusions to support months-old narratives that have since been squashed, maybe it’s worth hearing what the people involved actually had to say about it first?
“It was the whole team in those moments,” Williams clarified after the game. “Wasn’t just Deandre, it was the whole group out there not executing properly, and it was a bit of frustration, but that happens. That was not an isolated, one-person or one-player thing.”
“Mainly just focus, getting locked back in, don’t buy into what happened,” Ayton agreed, recounting what Williams was saying in the huddle. “It was deflating, but at the same time, we trying to win the game. That was all coach really was saying, just, he trying to win the game. You’re like, ‘Let’s go.’ Forget that [last play], deal with that later.”
So what exactly triggered all this? Because just before the heated huddle during a timeout at the 43-second mark, there was another bit of back-and-forth between Ayton and Mikal Bridges, one of his best friends on the team:
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) December 21, 2022
Bridges rarely gets upset on the court, especially with another teammate, so for him to be that heated about it, something must have gone wrong.
“I’ll say it’s deflating almost, me messing up the last play to really give us some momentum,” Ayton explained. “And that’s what really got everybody.”
So what happened on the final play? Going back before Deni Avdija’s free throws put Washington up by 7 points with 1:08 to play, which came one possession before the timeout where Phoenix’s huddle got so contentious, the Suns were down by 5 with 1:38 remaining.
They called a timeout to draw something up, but coming out of that huddle, Ayton apparently forgot to set the screen for Bridges’ cut to the basket. While DA wouldn’t specifically name the play, joking with the media scrum that they needed to go back and watch the film to figure it out, the reactions of Bridges and Torrey Craig both throwing their hands up is a pretty clear indication this was it:
Here is the play. You can see Torrey Craig on the bottom with his hands up as it unfolds pic.twitter.com/hKvivN69M6
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) December 21, 2022
Instead of possibly finding Bridges on a quick back cut to make it a one-possession game, or Bridges kicking it to Craig in the weak-side corner coming off Shamet’s back screen, the Suns had to settle for Paul — who wasn’t the same down the stretch after suffering what looked like another shoulder injury — creating something out of nothing.
Paul drove left but appeared unable or unwilling to look for his shot, instead force-feeding it to a cutting Craig. Taj Gibson blocked the shot, and the Wizards were fouled on the ensuing possession. It was then that Bridges said something to Ayton about the mishap, pointing back to the other end of the court.
While Ayton took accountability for messing up the designed set, Bridges took accountability at shootaround on Friday for reacting poorly to what he called a “brain fart” on the play.
“I was totally out of line, just being in front of everybody like that,” Bridges said. “There’s people and players in the league that just kinda do that for a show, kinda get on their teammates just so the crowd can see it, and I’m the last person to do that. So to do that and feel like it was embarrassing on DA’s part ’cause I’m just going at him like that, it messed me up. Like I said, it was fucked up on my end.”
“It was fucked up on my end.”
Mikal Bridges spoke at length about getting into it with Deandre Ayton the other night, saying he apologized to DA because he knew he was out of line for how he reacted to Ayton messing up the play: pic.twitter.com/PcEiTLBiWV
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) December 23, 2022
This is something Bridges claims happens quite a bit between the two of them as the team’s defensive anchors, though this case was more of an outlier.
“It’s just something we do,” he said. “I feel like that was longer than usual, but me and him usually get into it, and then five seconds later, we’re like, best friends, just because we can do that to each other.”
In this case, the verbal spat led right up to the exchange between Ayton and Williams, but Bridges said his coach was on his case as well.
“The internet captures what they see, which is fine,” Bridges said. “But Mont was just trying to control both of us, just getting on both of us, and DA was just frustrated. I was quiet in it, ’cause I already knew what I did and I messed up. But yeah, he was yelling at both of us, telling us, like, ‘Y’all two cut it out.'”
“We weren’t really exchanging words,” Ayton added. “We a family, so he know how to talk to his boys, and his boys know how to communicate. Obviously the whole world see it, but it’s really all love and just getting us back to regroup and just take out the confusion.”
Quite a bit of the frustration stemmed from letting a very winnable game slip away. Up by 10 with 5:35 to play, Phoenix’s defense collapsed, allowing the Wizards to close the game on a 25-12 run. It’s the type of ugly defeat that’s been far more common this season than last year, and after a tumultuous summer full of bad headlines, tough questions and unpleasant speculation, this latest viral clip is sure to inject new life into narratives that were finally lying dormant.
Losing a Game 7 at home by 33 points is a lightning rod for extended hot takes and trolling. Until the Suns rewrite their story in the playoffs, it should be expected that any bump in the road will be painted as some insurmountable summit. Despite Ayton and Williams talking at length about their relationship, and despite every piece of evidence over the last few months suggesting they buried the hatchet a long time ago, this type of debate in the heat of the moment is just going to be used to push agendas further.
Fortunately, the Suns themselves seem to be on the same page about how important those tough conversations — or even arguments — can be as long as everyone’s having them for the right reasons.
“We know each other, we know each other’s personalities,” Ayton said. “It’s just everybody got to see us really, like, intensified in the moment where, ‘Okay, dang, we lost our upper hand.’ It can get a little emotional. Just, ‘I thought you said this,’ or ‘you thought’ — but coach clarified it up in the huddle where we all was exchanging words and trying to get back into play and trying to win some basketball.”
“The ability to lock arms when you have a tough loss or when there’s frustrations over a certain thing that happens in the game, having your locker room tight is huge,” Williams added. “And our guys will be okay. We’re used to pulling games out like that, and we just came up short tonight.”
For his part, Ayton said he apologized to Shamet for the late-game blunder, claiming his mistake messed up Shamet’s “beautiful” career-high scoring night. But because the expectation for last year’s No. 1 seed is to implode yet again, you can be guaranteed these kinds of quotes won’t be the Suns content that’s circulating on Twitter or SportsCenter Wednesday morning.
“People like to act like the word ‘family’ and ‘brotherhood’ just means all the good stuff,” Shamet explained. “In reality, there’s trials and tribulation in family, and that ultimately, if you choose to view that in a certain light, it can kind of bolster you and those bonds and relationships, chemistry-wise. So we’re all still growing and handling it in the right way, and we will continue to do that.”
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