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Deandre Ayton ‘ready to go’ for first round of playoffs

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Ayton missed the Suns’ final three games of the regular season due to left knee soreness

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Phoenix Suns starting center Deandre Ayton said he is “ready to go” for his team’s first game in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs on Sunday after missing its last three regular-season contests due to left knee soreness.

Ayton, who was previously one of two Suns players along with starting forward Mikal Bridges to not miss a game this season, said his soreness was something he would have pushed through in a playoff setting. With the opportunity to rest, he indicated he is now “fully healthy” as Phoenix begins its first postseason run since 2009-10.

“Going out there, just exercising, doing a little rehab on it,” Ayton said. “Bring back in my confidence and today was a good practice. So just locked in, man. I’m ready to go.”

During an appearance with the Burns & Gambo Show on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM on Wednesday, Suns general manager James Jones also said that backup forward Cameron Johnson “should be ready to go” for Sunday’s game. Johnson missed Phoenix’s final six games of the regular season due to a right wrist sprain and had his cast removed for the injury on Monday, Suns owner Robert Sarver told Arizona Sports.

In his third season with Phoenix, Ayton has been one of its most important players in its rise to the second-best record in the Western Conference. He is rated No. 12 in the NBA in individual defensive rating, according to Statmuse, and ranks above the 85th percentile of players at his position in point differential, opponent points per 100 possessions and opponent effective field goal percentage when on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Suns coach Monty Williams has consistently referred to Ayton as his team’s anchor on defense and integral to its execution on that end.

“DA, he’s a guy that knows the calls now,” Williams said previously. “Last year, I think there was some gray areas and murkiness when things were happening quickly. Now, he and (backup forward) Dario (Saric), (backup center) Frank (Kaminsky), the bigs that have been in our program, they know what the calls are, so I think that helps them a lot.”

“He has the ability to protect the rim, guard his man one-on-one, and he’s shown the ability to guard smaller guys... it doesn’t always work out in those situations, but he’s a versatile defender for us and he’s athletic enough to move his feet without fouling.”

Even though his points-per-game average (14.4) is the lowest of his career, Ayton has been efficient offensively. He has set career highs in field goal percentage (62.6), effective field goal percentage (62.9) and free-throw percentage (76.9), and the Suns’ effective field goal percentage as a team went up by 2.2 percent when he was on the floor.

Ayton is expected to be a key piece in the Suns’ efforts to match up against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. He will likely be tasked to guard superstar forward Anthony Davis, who torched Phoenix with a season-high 42 points on 13-of-27 shooting and 15-of-17 from the free-throw line when the teams met on May 9, a 123-110 win for Los Angeles.

With his soreness seemingly behind him, Ayton said he expects his first career postseason experience to be “super intense.”

“It’s going to be serious and it’s going to be a mental focus, not only physical type of thing going on,” Ayton said. “There’s going to be a lot of mental and I’m ready to take that next step.

“This is what I’ve been waiting for, working for. The team is there and we working, and we just happy to be in the spot we’re in. Just ready to be in the experience.”