Deandre Ayton has long been called upon to play more aggressively throughout his career. The former No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft has been compared to Hall-of-Fame center David Robinson, judged against Dallas Mavericks superstar guard Luka Doncic — who was picked behind him — for his success and demanded by critics to assert his physical strengths.
Throughout the Phoenix Suns’ first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers, Ayton has done just that. The Suns’ big man is averaging 19.8 points and 13.5 rebounds on 80.9 percent shooting in just under 40 minutes per game, all against a potent Laker frontcourt with superstar forward Anthony Davis, high-level rebounder Andre Drummond, former NBA Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell and former NBA Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol.
In the last 35 years, only players with 75+ points and 50+ rebounds through first 4 career playoff games:— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) May 31, 2021
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After Monday’s practice, Suns coach Monty Williams said Ayton’s play has been “huge” for his team, and it’s been a product of hard work and buy in to Phoenix’s principles and guidance from starting point guard Chris Paul.
“I think his focus during the playoffs has been something that doesn’t surprise me — I just didn’t expect him, as young as he is, to be locked in,” Williams said. “And he’s been listening to Chris, all of our older guys when it comes to the experience, the playoff mentality and everything he’s doing in the weight room. I’ll look over in the weight room and he’s doing something in the weight room that I have never seen him do before, and it’s usually something that Chris has in his program.
“DA has really bought into embracing the whole experience, from exercise, drills to just focusing on the game plan. He’s watching a ton of film on his own, so I just think he’s embracing the experience. To be as young as he is and his first time going through it, I did not expect him to be where he is right now as far as his focus and attention to detail and the level of force that he’s playing with.”
Ayton is averaging the most rebounds of any big in this series and has arguably been the Suns’ most important player with Paul limited by injury. Ayton’s presence was especially felt during Phoenix’s Game 4 win on Sunday, when he finished with his fourth straight double-double with 14 points and a series-high 17 rebounds.
After the Suns gave up a 12-3 run when he was not on the floor to start the second quarter, Ayton helped the Suns go on a 27-14 run over the last 8:49 to give them a 54-50 lead at halftime. They later used an 18-4 run from three minutes remaining in the second quarter to 9:21 left in the third to build a double-digit lead on Los Angeles.
The Suns extended their advantage to as large as 16 points during the third quarter, which they won 27-15 and thoroughly controlled on both ends, and led by as many as 18 in the fourth.
“DA is playing unbelievably well and just him being aggressive on both ends just helps us out so much,” said Suns starting forward Mikal Bridges of Ayton. “If there’s a post-up or offensive rebound or get it off of a dump down or anything, he’s making money off of it. And then defensively, just helping each other.”
Ayton and the Suns return home for a crucial Game 5 at Phoenix Suns Arena on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. with the series tied at two games apiece. Ahead of it, here’s more of what Williams and Bridges said following Monday’s practice.
On how the team is approaching the health of Paul on its off day:
“We had a light practice today, not much of any kind of bump and grind at all. So today was pretty much a rest day for a lot of guys from a scheduling standpoint. But everybody was on the floor today, getting up shots, walking through things. Chris didn’t do a ton today though, so we’re just trying to do the best we can to manage everybody’s legs, especially in Chris’ situation.”
On how the Suns will plan for the Lakers if Davis cannot play:
“We just don’t know yet. We’ll find out more tomorrow, so it’s hard to plan any other way than him being on the floor. We’ve seen all of their bigs, and so we feel like we can adjust accordingly. Gasol has played well, they also have Harrell. Drummond’s been huge for them and (backup wing Kyle) Kuzma can play more four, (starting forward) LeBron (James) can play more four. So I think we’ve seen all of their bigs, whether it be a small sample size or large sample size. So we’re just going to plan once we find out who they’re going to have on the floor. You have the same situation with (starting guard) [Kentavious Caldwell-Pope]. You just have to wait until you see the official lineup tomorrow, but we’re planning for them to have all of their guys.”
On the Suns’ dribble penetration allowing them to get several paint opportunities in Game 4:
“It was a, ‘Go, catch,’ mentality. We didn’t have the shot, we drove it. Nothing different than what we’ve done all season long when we’re playing efficiently and playing at a high level. I thought we got to the second side a lot better, we didn’t play, especially in the first action, it’s OK to take that shot, we want to let it fly. But I thought we did a great job of attacking the paint and getting to the second side. And getting the ball out quick was the other part of the deal. I thought getting the ball out, even when they scored, we got the ball out quickly and pushed it down the floor. And like you said, (backup forward and starting forward) Cam (Johnson), Jae (Crowder), all of our guards were able to attack the paint and get to the rim or find their teammates on the second side.”
On Ayton’s performance this series:
“The rebounding is huge for us, his ability to score around the paint. But I think his focus during the playoffs has been something that doesn’t surprise me, I just didn’t expect him, as young as he is, to be locked in. and he’s been listening to Chris, all of our older guys when it comes to the experience, the playoff mentality and everything he’s doing in the weight room. I’ll look over in the weight room and he’s doing something in the weight room that I have never seen him do before, and it’s usually something that Chris has in his program. DA has really bought into embracing the whole experience, from exercise, drills to just focusing on the game plan. He’s watching a ton of film on his own, so I just think he’s embracing the experience. To be as young as he is and his first time going through it, I did not expect him to be where he is right now as far as his focus and attention to detail and the level of force that he’s playing with. It’s something that we all value and know when he does it, he’s pretty effective.”
On the vibe he got from the team today:
“We had a normal day today, a typical Suns day. We came in and we watched film and talked. The guys shot and I mean if I was grading it, I wouldn’t even give an ‘A’ or an ‘F.’ It was just normal for us. I think during the playoffs, you need days like today. You know everybody’s thinking about the game, you know everybody’s focused and nerves and all of that. So for us as a staff, we try to come in and have a typical, consistent Suns day. Not decompress but we want this to be the most consistent part of our program, is our gym. And the guys had great focus when we went through film and then when we walked through some things and they got their work in and they got out of the gym. So I think it was a good day from that standpoint because we know how badly our guys want it. They’ve shown a competitive edge and drive all season long.”
On what felt different about his performance in Game 4 from Game 3:
“Just staying with it and just being aggressive. I think that was probably the two things.”
On the potential challenge of playing a more aggressive James in Game 5:
“Every game is obviously a challenge. But just knowing it’s not 1-on-1. I got four other guys behind me that’s there, so obviously, I think he’ll be more aggressive if that happens. But I think just our team defense overall and how we play together I think, it’s going to help it out.”
On how the Suns capitalize off their defense with transition offense:
“Just getting stops and getting out in transition. Teams are not in front, can’t get their defense set up. And just getting out and then when we’re on the other end attacking, we all look for each other. So it makes it way easier once we get stops and get in transition because nobody out there is selfish, and we’re all going to find each other and either get a layup or try to get a 3(-pointer).”
On what has most impressed him about the play of Ayton:
“DA is playing unbelievably well and just him being aggressive on both ends just helps us out so much. If there’s a post-up or offensive rebound or get it off of a dump down or anything, he’s making money off of it. And then defensively, just helping each other. Obviously, it’s tough with Drummond, he’s big, but sometimes not even having to get the rebound and boxing out Drummond helps others get the rebound. And when LeBron and AD, people go to the hole, just him being there, going vertical or even blocking shots, it just wreaks havoc down there and helps us out big time.”
On how Game 3 motivated the team for Game 4:
“Just keying in on the key guys even more. Not letting AD and LeBron have their way. We know that when that happens, they’re tough to beat. So just trying to lock in on the key guys a little bit more and I think we did a better job of that last game.”