In the final minute of regulation of the Phoenix Suns eventual win over the Milwaukee Bucks, 128-127 in overtime, the Suns were down a bucket when Deandre Ayton rolled into the teeth of the Bucks defense and came out unable to hold up his left arm.
You can see the play here. Nothing stands out, but Ayton clearly can’t even feel his arm for a good while. How he kept playing in this one is beyond me. He even recovered the ball and got the outlet to his teammate before buckling.
The clock kept running and Ayton stayed in the game. Nothing awful happened over those next couple of minutes as Ayton tried to regain his composure, so the Suns avoided disaster in the closing seconds.
Why didn’t coach Monty Williams call timeout to get Ayton looked at?
“That was the only way that it would have worked out,” Williams said afterward with relief in his voice.
Indeed, the Suns were down to two timeouts, so they felt that they could not afford to use one of their last ones to check on Ayton if he could stay in the game. In a close game in the final seconds, you need timeouts to challenge bad calls and to advance the ball to mid-court in a pinch.
So Williams decided the Suns would play on.
“When I got hit, I didn’t know where I was at first.” Ayton said afterward. “It got to me a little bit. But a game like this, it’s a playoff-like game. It’s gonna be hard, this is the NBA. You can’t really stop or pause for any type of scratches.”
Turns out Ayton suffered a stinger that numbed his arm for a bit before coming back to life. He played the rest of the game and the entire overtime for 40 total minutes, scoring 20 points, grabbing 13 rebounds and recording a block. Afterward, his shoulder wasn’t even wrapped in ice so clearly the effects of the stinger had passed without lingering effects.
But Ayton’s game was much bigger than even the box score would indicate. His defense on Giannis Antetokuonmpo was excellent all night long. While Giannis got his production, Ayton made enough stops at the right time to make the difference in the game.
Giannis got his tonight but Deandre Ayton certainly made him work for it. One of the NBA's best Giannis defenders.— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) April 20, 2021
The highlights: pic.twitter.com/GTfu1XcQ0V
“My biggest thing was just making sure he had tough shots,” Ayton said. “Making sure he see a wall, making sure I wall him up without fouling him and just making it clean, you know, giving him a little bump here and there, making him work for his baskets. Our guys were showing bodies, early, and in transition showing bodies, made him hesitate a little bit and that’s what helped me a lot to get up on him and the game took place from there.”
Coach Monty Williams gushed about DA’s defense on Giannis in his postgame comments.
“His defense the whole game (not just fourth quarter),” an animated Williams said. “I don’t know what else he can do. Giannis made some tough shots. There were a few he had to go under DA’s arm and made some fadeaway jump shots in the paint, that’s about all you can do. I thought DA did a really good job. I thought the biggest thing was he didn’t get frustrated. He didn’t cry to the refs or any of that stuff. He just stayed with it. And once we got our rotation set up where we could match him against Giannis I thought it helped our team.”
With the Bucks playing Giannis at power forward next to 7-foot Brook Lopez, the Suns ability to match up Ayton on Giannis is not easy. Williams started Dario Saric next to Ayton in this game to allow Ayton to guard Giannis, but Saric rolled an ankle early and was mostly ineffective. Eventually, Jae Crowder and Torrey Craig ended up playing next to Ayton and tagging Lopez when he was in the game next to Giannis.
Listen to All-Star and sure-fire Hall of Fame point god Chris Paul on the Bally Sports Arizona postgame show.
“Big shout out to Deandre Ayton,” Chris Paul said. “You know he toughed it out, got some big rebounds, big stops, we wouldn’t win that game without him...He’s such a huge part of this team and I’m glad to see him being successful.”
Paul passed Magic Johnson on the list of all-time assist leaders for 5th place, finishing with 13 assists along with 22 points and 7 rebounds. This a week after taking over 5th all-time in career steals. But Paul would not dwell on himself, instead pointing out how this is a team game.
“Everyone plays a part when we win a game,” he said.
Now back to that shoulder injury.
The Suns don’t win this game without Deandre Ayton, and they are not going deep in the playoffs without him playing at a high level.
Suns fans have been worried about Ayton’s toughness, often calling him soft because he won’t dunk the ball with authority whenever he can.
But toughness is not measured in dunk rate. Toughness is measured in a player’s ability to step up in big games and his ability to clear road blocks. Games aren’t won with dunks. Games are won with toughness.
Ayton showed on Monday night he’s got the mental and physical toughness to succeed in the most stressful situations.
“I’m glad coach didn’t stop the game or call the timeout,” Ayton said. “He made me play through it and I figured my way out. My teammates were there for me, everybody was talking to me. And that’s just our culture being relentless and that’s what kicked in. It was an important game tonight.”