The wait was well worth it.
4,012 days after the Phoenix Suns lost in Game 6 to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2010 Western Conference Finals, the Phoenix Suns defeated their Pacific Division rival in Game 1 of the First Round, 99-90. It was a dramatic game with ebbs and flows, shoulder contusions and ejections, dodgeball-esque tempers and LeBron Academy Award auditions.
It was an emotional rollercoaster that Suns’ fans have been robbed of for 11 years; the thrill of playoff basketball. It was a thrill for the players too, as Monty Williams reminded them during the game:
Monty Williams just now to his team in the huddle: "This is our freakin' moment, early in the playoffs. I'm not trying to get to July and say 'I wish we did whatever.' It's freakin' right now. You guys are built for this."— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) May 23, 2021
An important factor that equated to a Suns victory in Game 1, and one of the primary concerns entering the series, was the ability for Phoenix to be effective on the interior. The Lakers possess an army of tall men. While the Lakers have seven players over the height of 6’9” and above, Phoenix only has four. Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol, and Markieff Morris all pose a substantial advantage for Los Angeles.
The Suns dedication to team rebounding was a necessity on Sunday afternoon, and the team executed the game plan. Phoenix outrebounded the Lakers 47-33, including 16-10 on the offensive glass. The Lakers were 0-9 in games in which they were outrebounded by 9 or more. In 72 games this season, they had only lost the battle on the boards in 29 of their 72 games, carrying an 11-18 record in those games.
There are two things you cannot coach: speed and size. One advantage the Suns displayed was a player who possesses both. Who led the charge and imposed his will on the glass and in the box score? The man many have doubted, many have critiqued, and many thought would be a vital cog in this series: Deandre Ayton. The third year center, who turns 23 on July 23, had a stellar performance that began with his winning of the opening tip.
Ayton’s playoff debut was one for the ages. His 21 point, 16 rebound performance wasn’t just impressive, it was essential. With Chris Paul hobbled by a right shoulder contusion, the Suns needed more than just a rebounding/defensive performance from Deandre.
His dedication to being an interior presence negated the effectiveness of the Laker interior. Outside of one made free throw, all of his scoring occurred in the paint. Due to his 8 offensive rebounds, he scored 10 second chance points. He scored 10 of the Suns first 21 points in his first playoff experience and established a mid-first quarter lead that the team would never relinquish.
Ayton’s shot chart is a work of art.
While Ayton did what he could to hoist his team on his back, the Suns — in true 2020-21 Phoenix Suns “team” fashion — had Deandre’s back during a crucial stretch in the second quarter. With 4:19 left in the first half Ayton was tagged with is third foul. The Suns were up 46-37, but their center would head to the bench until the start of the third quarter.
Phoenix ended the second quarter by being outscored by the Lakers by only 1 point as the Lakers scored 8 points to the Suns’ 7 in the final four minutes. Los Angeles did not capitalize on the fact that DA was on the pine.
Deandre did what was needed on the glass as well. Although the Lakers possess the size, Ayton has the speed and quick twitch rebounding ability that can negate that size Couple that with a team rebounding philosophy — similar to volleyball tip drills — and Ayton did something that Alvan Adams, Mark West, and Amare Stoudemire (and sure, Rick Robey, too. #Top10WorstSunsTradesEver) failed to do in their playoff debuts: snag 16 rebounds.
Although it was a team effort, you cannot overlook the effectiveness of Ayton’s impact on defense when looking at how Anthony Davis and LeBron James performed. Davis shot 5-for-16 from the field and James went 6-for-13. No, Ayton wasn’t the primary defender on the two superstars, but in which switch defense situations and Laker small-ball lineups, he found himself putting a hand in their face and deterring their shot.
Ayton posted a 90.3 defensive rating in Game 1 on Sunday and a 22.2 net rating. He led the Suns with 14 shot contests on defense. Deandre lived up to the “anchor on defense” moniker some of podcasters like to use when referencing his performances this season.
Expect the Lakers to recognize the effectiveness of Ayton heading in to Game 2, and prepare for them to attempt to fluster him in an attempt to get him in foul trouble. As great as Ayton was, his replacement — Sir Dario Saric — was not. Saric was a -7 with 2 turnovers and 3 personal fouls in his 11 minutes played. Although his one block was pretty sweet.
I think back to the night of the 2018 NBA Draft, when commissioner Adam Silver informed us all that it was indeed Deandre Ayton who would be drafted first overall. In his first appearance in the post season, he did something only one other player has done against the Lakers: shoot 90% in a 20+ point, and have a 15+ rebounding performance. That man is the legendary Boston Celtics center Bill Russell.
A long series lies ahead for the Phoenix Suns. The Lakers will punch back, and may do so with ferocity. Step one for Deandre Ayton was to know that he could step up on the big stage. When his team needed him, Ayton was there. The next step in his evolution is to adjust to the adjustments, just as Devin Booker did relative to the double teams he saw.
Fantastic job, DA.