Patience is paying off in a big way for the Phoenix Suns. The No. 2 seed in the West snapped its 10-year playoff drought this year, beat the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round and currently holds a 1-0 lead over the Denver Nuggets. While the Suns’ All-Star backcourt of Chris Paul and Devin Booker are obvious catalysts for the team’s leap, it may owe just as much to 2018 No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton, who is coming into his own during his playoff debut.
High expectations awaited the 6-foot-11 Ayton when Phoenix, seeming to buck the trend of today’s perimeter-focused NBA, took the big man with the top pick three years ago. Ayton made an immediate impact in his first two seasons, though this year, with Paul and Booker leading the Suns’ attack, Ayton averaged the fewest points (14.4) and touches (46.7) per game of his young career. Despite his smaller offensive role, he’s made himself more valuable to the team, almost doubling his RAPTOR wins above replacement from the previous season.
Ayton’s combination of strength, agility and touch have provided Phoenix an interior presence as a rim-runner. His 2,408 total picks in the regular season trailed only Rudy Gobert (2,832) and Nikola Vučević (2,453) in the league. Since being drafted in 2018, Ayton ranks fifth among all players in this category, according to Second Spectrum.
His 280 picks in the Lakers series led all players through the first round and posed key problems for the defending champions’ frontline. In this example from Game 2, Ayton finishes off a double-screen for teammate Cameron Payne, who drew Marc Gasol out of the paint long enough for Ayton to slip through for the interior finish:
And in this Game 3 example, Ayton helps complete a double screen for Paul, who commands Anthony Davis’s attention coming off the pick. It takes no time for Ayton to slip into the paint and finish the lob over an onlooking Lakers defense.
The Suns’ big man finished the first round with a field-goal percentage of 79.6 to set an NBA postseason record for the best mark in a single series on at least 50 attempts. Though he didn’t reach double figures in Games 5 and 6 against the Lakers, he still averaged 15.8 points and 10.7 rebounds in his debut playoff series, becoming the youngest Sun to record 20 points and 10 rebounds in a single postseason game since Amar’e Stoudemire in 2005.
Ayton also became the first center to record 20 points and 10 rebounds in three straight games to begin a playoff career since Hall of Famer David Robinson did so in 1990.
Paul, who’s riding a personal streak of 11 straight playoff appearances, reflected on his 22-year-old teammate’s adjustment to the postseason: “His poise and this being his first playoffs, the game gets real intense, loud and stuff like that,” Paul said after Phoenix clinched its first-round win. “But he just stays the course, and that’s huge for our team.”
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The Point God has a penchant for developing chemistry with his big men, and that’s certainly been the case in Phoenix. In the regular season, Paul and Ayton combined on 1,360 pick and rolls — by far the most in the league among any pair of players — and scored 1.046 points per chance. Thirty-three of Paul’s 39 assists via lob pass have gone to Ayton this year. Those 33 makes are tied for CP3’s most to one teammate since leaving the Lob City Clippers after the 2016-17 season, per Second Spectrum.
Ayton has a similar connection with Paul’s backcourt mate. Booker is tied for 11th among all passers with 215 total lobs since entering the league in 2015-16, and 45 percent (96 in all) have been to Ayton.
Ayton’s strides as a rim protector and defender have been key to his emergence. The Lakers struggled on both sides of the ball after Davis went down in the first round, but Ayton posed problems for anyone in purple and gold throughout the series. Per NBA.com, the Lakers in Round 1 scored far more points in the paint per 100 possessions with Ayton on the bench (58.5) than on the court (42.6).
And even when Davis was playing, Ayton was making him work. In Games 1-3, Davis shot just 40 percent when guarded by Ayton, including 25 percent on jumpers. For comparison, Davis shot over 45 percent on jumpers during the Lakers’ 2020 title run.
Among centers, Ayton trails only Brook Lopez in total jumpers defended this season. Despite allowing opponents to shoot a career-high 40 percent on such shots in the regular season, he’s improved that figure to 31 percent in his first playoff run. Ayton recently told The Athletic he wanted to be “certified as the best young two-way center,” and the Suns are reaping the benefits of his work. Phoenix ended the season ranked sixth in defensive rating, the team’s highest ranking in over two decades.
How far Phoenix can go this postseason may depend on Ayton’s growth with disrupting offenses. The Suns rarely struggle to score points of their own, so there is ample value in Ayton adding so much to the team’s defensive efforts.
In the first game of the Suns’ second-round series, Ayton went toe-to-toe with league MVP Nikola Jokić, finishing with a plus-minus of +13 in addition to kicking in 20 points and 10 rebounds. Defensively, Ayton held Jokić to 14 points on 6-for-15 overall shooting, including a 2-for-8 mark on attempts outside the paint. On the season, The Joker, when guarded by Ayton, is shooting just 26 percent from outside the paint, according to Second Spectrum.
“The key to the series is sticking to what we do,” Ayton said about facing Denver in the Western Conference semifinals. “You know, defense is what creates our offense. We know it’s going to be a different team and different style of play, but we can’t change what we do, and we can’t revert from being poised.”
Denver, and Jokić, have taken note. When told after Game 1 that Jokić considers him one of his toughest defensive matchups, Ayton responded, “Wow. He said that? That’s lit.”
If Phoenix’s defensive anchor continues to hold things down, the Suns may just be one step closer to the NBA Finals.
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