Monty Williams knows what he needs to tell the media about the Phoenix Suns’ chances in the NBA’s restart.
The Suns coach also knows the odds are stacked against his team when the season resumes at Walt Disney World. With eight games to play, Phoenix is in 13th place in the Western Conference, six games behind the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies.
“We obviously have a goal, which is making the playoffs,” Williams says. “But I always approach every situation by trying not to get too far ahead of myself. We know the big picture, but we need to focus on one step at a time.
“That’s why I’ve watched Washington a lot more than I probably should have.”
Under the special rules adopted for this one-of-a-kind finish, the Suns don’t have to catch Memphis to get into the Western Conference playoffs. If the ninth-place team in either conference is within four games of the eighth-place team at the end of the irregular season, there will be a two-game play-in series between them. If the ninth-place team wins both games, they steal the eighth seed.
In the Eastern Conference, it is fairly straightforward. There are only nine teams at Disney, with the Washington Wizards (24-40) needing to get within four games of either the Orlando Magic (30-35) or the Brooklyn Nets (30-34) to force a two-game showdown. It isn’t likely—the Wizards won’t have their three best players—but at least they have a clear idea of what they need to do.
It’s not nearly as simple for the Suns. Not only do they have to get within four games of the Grizzlies, they have to pass the San Antonio Spurs, Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers to grab ninth place. That would be difficult with a full roster—the Suns are 26-39, after all—but it will be tougher with what Williams will actually have.
Privacy concerns mean coaches can’t discuss injuries, but reports have stated Kelly Oubre will miss the restart because of a knee injury sustained in February. Oubre, the Suns’ second-leading scorer, is at least definitely in Orlando. Starting point guard Ricky Rubio and backup center Aron Baynes are not in any of the clips released of practices, nor have they done Zoom interviews from Disney.
“I can’t speak on any player’s condition because of the HIPAA laws, but this is obviously an unprecedented situation,” Williams says. “We all have people who rely on us, and I think everyone is concerned about staying healthy. We’re the lighthouses of our family, and we don’t want to do anything that jeopardizes that.
“Based on what we’ve been told, the NBA is giving us the best possible chance to stay safe, and that’s all we can ask.”
Florida is one of the nation’s hardest-hit areas during the current COVID-19 surge, but the Disney bubble seems to be working. The league announced July 21 that none of the 346 players in Orlando had tested positive during the latest round of checks. If players leave the area, they are subjected to quarantine periods before they can join their teams.
That’s one of the reasons there is so much uncertainty about Rubio and Baynes. While reports indicated they didn’t travel to Florida with the team on July 7, it is possible that one or both have arrived in the meantime and are waiting out a quarantine period. Nothing will be completely clear until they restart their season on July 31 against the Wizards.
And as long as there is a mathematical chance, Williams expects whatever players he has to be fighting for a playoff spot.
“We’re trying to win games—that’s always our mindset,” he says. “We’re not down here to ride on Space Mountain and do the Disney thing. This is ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Braveheart’ stuff. We’ve talked about ‘embracing hard’ for a long, long time, and our guys know what that’s going to take.”