Suns’ Monty Williams keeps pushing all the right buttons


There are cameras and microphones everywhere at the NBA Finals, and they happened to catch an interaction late in Game 2 that was going viral before the game was even over.

It was Phoenix coach Monty Williams, talking only to Suns center Deandre Ayton during a time out and trying desperately to cheer him up on what was a slow night statistically against the Milwaukee Bucks. Ayton’s head was down. His body language was awful. Williams wasn’t having it. He started talking, then grabbed Ayton’s wrist to further commandeer his attention.

Mind you, his voice was raised high enough only so Ayton could hear him over the din of the crowd. No yelling, no screaming, no swearing, no histrionics.

“You set a high level for yourself,” Williams said. “That’s why you’re 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, because you set a high level for yourself. Go dominate the game with force. Let’s go.”

Ayton scored shortly after that time out ended. A few seconds after that, he got a steal. A couple minutes later, with Milwaukee within six and still having hope, Ayton found Chris Paul for a 3-pointer. The Bucks were never within two possessions of tying the game again.

That moment was indicative of the entire season.

Williams has pushed the right button, every time.

He did it again Thursday, part of the reason why the Suns are up 2-0 in these NBA Finals. Why they are two wins away from the franchise’s first title, and why Williams was recognized by his peers as the best coach in the league this season. It’s also why many others are starting to catch on that he’s very much the real deal.

“You are giving me a lot of credit,” Williams said. “I try to be authentic. Sometimes in a huddle I don’t say anything. The guys will run the huddle. But I try to be an encourager in huddles, especially when I see a guy down or the team is not at the level where they should be mentally. I don’t want to make up stuff.

“I know what it’s like to be in those huddles and you want to know the truth, but you also need sometimes a pep talk, sometimes encouragement. I just try to be authentic and speak from the heart.”

Williams didn’t get here by accident. He played for Pat Riley, Don Nelson and Larry Brown – all members of the Basketball Hall of Fame. He played for Doc Rivers and Mike D’Antoni, too. He played for Gregg Popovich, then worked for Popovich as a coaching intern, then worked with him as San Antonio’s vice president of basketball operations.

Popovich said he knew right away that Williams was unique.

“He’s obviously a fine basketball coach,” Popovich said this week in Las Vegas, where he and his U.S. Olympic team are getting ready for the Tokyo Games. “But his ability to relate to players, to be genuine, to be honest, no tricks, no smoke screens, just a straight-up, caring, loving man, it shows. It comes out, and players react to it.”

Popovich is looking to lead the Americans to a gold medal, which would be their fourth Olympic title in a row. Williams was an assistant coach on the most recent U.S. team, the one that won gold in Rio de Janeiro five years ago – doing so just six months after Williams’ wife Ingrid was killed in a car crash.

He delivered his wife’s eulogy, quoting scripture, speaking of his faith in God, even reminding fellow mourners that the family of the other driver, who died in the crash, also needed prayers. It was a show of remarkable class, courage and strength.

“He’s a special man,” Popovich said.

A special coach, too.

The Suns were the worst team in basketball over the last five seasons. The worst. They are two wins away from becoming the best team in the world, with a dynamic young duo – Ayton and U.S. Olympian Devin Booker – and a coach on the floor in Chris Paul, whose 16-season wait for an NBA title might be a few days from finally ending.

They do the work and Williams wants them to get all the credit. And yes, they deserve plenty, but it was Williams who came up with the framework for how this team could win — and let his players figure out how best to thrive.

“I tell our guys to go hoop,” Williams shrugs.

He makes it sound simple, makes it look easy. Only the great ones can do that.

Jokic scores 31 points with 11 assists, leads Nuggets past Bucks 129-106


DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic had 31 points and 11 assists, Jamal Murray finished with 26 points and nine assists, and the Denver Nuggets beat the Milwaukee Bucks 129-106 on Saturday night in a late-season showdown of the NBA’s conference leaders.

Michael Porter Jr. scored 19 points for West-leading Denver (50-24), which outscored East-leading Milwaukee 68-40 in the second half.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 31 points — just seven in the second half — and grabbed nine rebounds for the Bucks (53-20).

“It’s better to win games, but our goal is to do something in a playoffs,” Jokic said.

The battle of the top teams in each conference — and two strong MVP candidates — was more competitive than the teams’ first meeting, won by the Bucks 107-99. Then, the Nuggets held out four starters — Jokic, Murray, Porter and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — in the game in Milwaukee on Jan. 25. Denver had played the night before in New Orleans and opted to rest its stars.

The circumstances were reversed, with the Bucks having played in Utah on Friday night.

“We still play, still got to be better, there’s no excuses about that,” Khris Middleton said. “But I’m sure for a lot of fans, a lot of people out there, they’d love to see healthy teams, or not coming off back to backs.”

Antetokounmpo scored 24 points on 11-for-14 shooting in the first half, with all but one of those field goals coming at the rim. Murray (20 points) and Jokic (17 points) kept Denver within three at the break, and then the Nuggets outscored Milwaukee 34-19 in the third quarter to take a 97-85 lead.

Jeff Green dunked on Antetokounmpo to open the fourth as the Nuggets’ lead swelled to 15 points. Grayson Allen hit a 3-pointer to cut it to 103-91 with 9:54 left, but Milwaukee went scoreless for 4:10 while Denver built a 111-91 lead.

“It was an amazing dunk,” Jokic said of Green’s dunk. “I didn’t think he was going to do it. He almost fell down, so it was a really nice dunk.”

Antetokounmpo went to the bench with 5:54 left and didn’t return.

The Bucks lost some composure in the third quarter. Bobby Portis Jr. was called for a take foul on Jokic and, immediately after, a technical. Denver hit both free throws and Bruce Brown hit a 3-pointer for a 84-76 lead. Minutes later, Brook Lopez got a technical while sitting on the bench.

Antetokounmpo picked up Milwaukee’s third technical with 6:41 left in the game.

“It was a night where we were grumpy, and it happens,” coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Denver coach Michael Malone got a technical late in the first quarter, and it was to prevent Jokic from getting one. Jokic was frustrated by the physical play, so during a timeout Malone told him he would get the technical.

“I can get kicked out, he can’t. I understand the pecking order here,” Malone said.

Watch Trae Young get ejected for launching ball at referee


Trae Young screwed up and he knew it.

“It’s just a play he can’t make,” Hawks coach Quin Snyder said via the Associated Press after the game. “I told him that. He knows it.”

With the score tied at 84 in the third quarter, Young had a 3-pointer disallowed and an offensive foul called on him for tripping the Pacers’ Aaron Nesmith. A frustrated Young picked up a technical foul for something he said.

Then walking back to the bench, Young turned and launched the ball at the referee with two hands. It was an instant ejection.


“There wasn’t a single part of him that tried to rationalize what happened,” Snyder said.

Young can expect a fine for this. It also was his 15th technical of the season, one more and he will get an automatic one-game suspension.

The Hawks went on to win 143-130, improving Atlanta to .500 at 37-37 and keeping them solidly as the No. 8 seed in the East.

Report: ‘Strong optimism’ Anthony Edwards could return to Timberwolves Sunday

Houston Rockets v Minnesota Timberwolves
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What looked so bad when it happened may only cost Anthony Edwards three games.

Edwards rolled his ankle last week but could be back Sunday when the Timberwolves travel to Golden State, reports Chris Haynes at Yahoo Sports.

Edwards is averaging 24.7 points and 5.9 rebounds a game this season, and he has stepped up to become the team’s primary shot-creator with Karl-Anthony Towns out for much of the season. The Timberwolves have been outscored by 3.4 points per 100 possessions when Edwards is off the court this season.

Towns returned to action a couple of games ago, and with Edwards on Sunday it will be the first time since November the Timberwolves will have their entire core on the court — now with Mike Conley at the point. With the Timberwolves tied for the No.7 seed in an incredibly tight West (they are 1.5 games out of sixth but also one game out of missing the postseason entirely) it couldn’t come at a better time. It’s also not much time to develop of fit and chemistry the team will need in the play-in, and maybe the playoffs.

Nets announce Ben Simmons diagnosed with nerve impingement in back, out indefinitely

NBA: FEB 24 Nets at Bulls
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Ben Simmons — who has been in and out of the Nets’ lineup all season and often struggled when on the court — is out indefinitely due to a nerve impingement in his back, the team announced Friday.

A nerve impingement — sometimes called a pinched nerve — is when a bone or other tissue compresses a nerve. Simmons has a history of back issues going back to his time in Philadelphia, and he had a microdiscectomy about a year ago, after he was traded to Brooklyn.

With two weeks and nine games left in the season, logic would suggest Simmons is done for the season. Coach Jacque Vaughn said Thursday that Simmons has done some individual workouts but nothing with teammates, however, he would not say Simmons is shut down for the season or would not participate in the postseason with Brooklyn.

Simmons had not played since the All-Star break when he got PRP injections to help deal with ongoing knee soreness. When he has played this season offense has been a struggle, he has been hesitant to shoot outside a few feet from the basket and is averaging 6.9 points a game. Vaughn used him mainly as a backup center.

Simmons has two fully guaranteed years and $78 million remaining on his contract after this season. While Nets fans may want Simmons traded, his injury history and that contract will make it very difficult to do so this summer (Brooklyn would have to add so many sweeteners it wouldn’t be worth it).

The Nets have slid to the No.7 seed in the West — part of the play-in — and have a critical game with the Heat on Saturday night.