For a former No. 1 draft pick, Deandre Ayton has faced more questions than he has seemingly been able to answer.
Throughout his three-year career, the Phoenix Suns’ starting center has been continuously compared to Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, who has become a two-time All-Star and MVP candidate since he was passed on by the Suns in 2018. Likened to Hall of Fame center David Robinson out of college, Ayton has at times lacked the command that helped Robinson live up to his nickname, ‘The Admiral,’ on a consistent basis.
Even though Ayton rated No. 12 in the NBA in individual defensive rating, according to Statmuse, and had career-highs in field goal percentage (62.6) and effective field goal percentage (62.9 percent), those questions have continued to eat at him, almost like a nagging insect on a hot summer day. To continue shooing them away, Ayton needed a strong response, one even beyond his regular-season impact for the second-best team in the Western Conference.
In his playoff debut on Sunday, Ayton delivered a forceful answer to his critics with an emphatic 21-point, 16-rebound performance on 10-of-11 shooting in the Suns’ 99-90 win over the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers. He also made superstar forward Anthony Davis, who had just 13 points and seven rebounds on 5-of-16 shooting, succumb to his presence in a vigorous defensive outing.
“Just trying to play hard and try to match the energy as best as I can,” Ayton said. “Just throughout the game, it was great plays and (I) can’t know when they’ll make great plays. So just being ready and that’s about it.”
In the moments leading up to Phoenix’s first postseason contest since 2006-07, Ayton appeared more than ready for the challenge. He told reporters that when he took the floor with more than 11,000 fans behind him, he quieted his mind to let the environment sink in. But once the game began, he was as active and vocal as ever, evidenced in his time mic’d up on ABC’s television broadcast.
With the Lakers blitzing ball screens on Suns starting guards Chris Paul and Devin Booker in the opening minutes, Ayton slipped to the paint and overpowered Los Angeles’ smaller players, scoring 10 of his team’s first 21 points. He never relented his presence inside throughout the game, finishing with more offensive rebounds (eight) than Davis had in total boards.
Outside of his first-quarter flurry, Ayton’s most forceful stretch came in the fourth. With the Suns’ lead cut to 92-84, he recorded back-to-back offensive rebounds over Davis that led to a tip in from him and a jumper from starting forward Mikal Bridges, icing the game with a 96-84 lead with 4:01 to play.
Gets another offensive rebound on the next possession. This is just will and heart. pic.twitter.com/ZyY7pNjsfP— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) May 23, 2021
As a team, the Suns — perceived to be at a size disadvantage with Davis and centers Andre Drummond and Montrezl Harrell on the other end — won the rebounding battle 47-33, outscored the Lakers in the paint 52-44 and had 21 second-chance points compared to Los Angeles’ 10.
“He (Ayton) is just big, he’s able to jump over them and use his athleticism and his length and his strength,” said Lakers forward LeBron James after the game. “So we got to do a much better job of sandwich rebounding and not allowing him to get these second-chance points for their team, because they just shoot it extremely well.”
It has to be so rewarding for the #Suns franchise to see Deandre Ayton's growth as a defender since he was at Arizona. He just matched LeBron James step-for-step with this block at the rim. Beautiful execution. pic.twitter.com/azE6Gkx3Lf— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) May 23, 2021
Ayton’s disruptive individual defense on Davis and the Suns’ timely double teams on him led to the Lakers taking an extensive amount of 3-pointers, where they shot just 7-of-26 for the game.
“I missed a ton of shots,” Davis said. “We just have to be better on that end, but there’s no way we’re winning a game, let alone a series, with me playing the way I played. So this one is on me. I take full responsibility for sure. We’ll be better in Game 2.”
Ayton and Suns starting shooting guard Devin Booker combined for 55 points on 23-of-37 shooting, which was the fourth-most combined points in league history by a duo of teammates in their playoff debut, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
The fact that they outplayed James and Davis, who contributed 31 total points and 14 rebounds on 11-of-29 shooting, was something that impressed Booker, but he did not want to get carried away by it.
“We did well tonight, but it’s one game,” Booker said. “No matter how much we won by, no matter how we played, Game 2 is going to be a whole different opportunity. But it’s obvious what those guys are capable of, we just try to make it tough on them.”
Ayton’s performance, however, was “big time” in his eyes.
“That’s next-level,” Booker said. “You could see it, you could see it in his face pregame that he was ready to go. And as a collective whole, us being on him a lot during the game, getting him prepared for this moment, he responded to it and he stepped up.”
Widely predicted to lose their series against the defending champions, the Suns affirmed their identity as a tight, resilient group that won’t heed to adversity on a national stage. It is a long series, as they pointed out, though it could be very beneficial to establish momentum early against the defending champions.
Phoenix still has plenty of doubters to answer as its playoff run progresses, especially now that starting point guard Chris Paul appears significantly limited by a right shoulder contusion. But for Ayton, he surely silenced a few of them.
“Just making sure we stay together,” Ayton said. “Once we keep emphasizing togetherness as a unit, we’ll be fine.”
Lakers coach Frank Vogel: Paul undercut on James a ‘dangerous play’
With 9:01 left in the fourth quarter, chaos broke loose after a play in which James missed a free throw and was undercut on a box out from Paul, which led to James falling to the floor and appearing to hurt his left shoulder.
Near the sideline, Suns backup point guard Cameron Payne shoved Lakers backup guard Alex Caruso to the ground, which led to Caruso charging at Payne, Payne throwing the basketball back at Caruso and Harrell running in and appearing uncertain whether or not to shove or separate Payne from the play.
After review, Payne was ejected from the game while Caruso and Harrell each received technical fouls. Asked about the whole incident after the game, Lakers coach Frank Vogel said Paul’s box out on James was a “dangerous play.”
“My view was a really aggressive box out, dangerous play where [LeBron] was in the air and got undercut and some guys stood up for him,” Vogel said. “I didn’t see the exact scene of what happened with the altercation, but that’s why they have the video to look back and figure out what happened.”
Paul told Yahoo! Sports reporter Chris Haynes the following when asked about the incident.
“I don’t know anything about that. I have absolutely nothing to say about that. We’re just playing basketball and competing,” Paul told Yahoo Sports after the Suns’ 99-90 victory to take a 1-0 series lead. “I’m just thankful we got the win, and I’m looking forward to Game 2.”
Davis said he did not see the incident completely but called the chippiness between the teams “playoff basketball.”
“I didn’t necessarily see the play, only what [LeBron] had told me,” Davis said. “But it’s always tough, you miss a free throw and jump up to get the ball. Any time you hit somebody’s leg, it’s always a dangerous play. That’s what you don’t want. “You don’t want anyone to get injured on plays like that. But the intensity is where it’s supposed to be. Guys getting into it, chirping. That’s playoff basketball.”
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