These Phoenix Suns are for real. By beating the Denver Nuggets on Friday night to take a 3-0 series lead, the Suns have tied a franchise record with six consecutive wins in the playoffs. This is a franchise of 30 playoff runs, including 146 playoff wins overall and two Finals berths (1976 and 1993).
No one outside the Suns organization and fanbase saw THIS coming. Oh sure, after beating the Los Angeles Lakers in round one the Suns were a popular pick to take down the Nuggets in the semifinals. But almost no one predicted a 3-0 series lead.
Yes, the Lakers missed Anthony Davis in most of their last three losses, but that Lakers team played much of the season without Davis and still had the league’s best defense while boasting a four-time Most Valuable Player running the show. And for the record, the Suns won Game 1 and had made the necessary adjustment to have the lead in Game 4 before Davis went down, dammit.
Yes, Denver is missing Jamal Murray, but this Denver team has the current league MVP, went 13-5 to close out the regular season and won the first round easily (4-2) over the Blazers all without Murray. Heck they even got fourth-leading scorer Will Barton back, which was more than they had for the last seven weeks.
The Suns are just trucking along anyway. They have not only won all three games this series, they have had the lead every second of every fourth quarter. They are doing this the same way they blasted through the regular season — with a great offense and a great defense.
Zach Lowe of ESPN shared with the world how the Suns have dominated opponents with the most sophisticated pick and roll in the league, centering around Chris Paul at the helm and Deandre Ayton in the middle.
Paul spent the whole season
yelling at coaching DA for where to be, when to release the pick, how to roll properly, how much separation to get between them (Paul drives much closer to the rim before his pullups than anyone Ayton has ever seen) and everything else in between.
“With our team all season long, we’ve had growing pains,” Chris Paul said after Friday’s win. “We’ve had this, that. Me and DA talking about what we see on the screen, ‘Hold the screen, set it this way.’ We all have been getting to know each other.”
Ayton has developed as well as anyone could have hoped.
On offense, he has morphed from a reluctant roller, high-volume mid-range shooter and high-post connector to an attacking pick-and-roll finisher in the mold of every other center Paul has ever played with. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and Clint Capela were all great but they’ve got nothing on 22-year old DA.
Ayton is the first player in league history to make more than 61% of his shots in his first eight playoff games on at least 50 field goal attempts, and Ayton blew that away with a 75% mark!
Finally, Ayton is starting to get praise from his teammates who’ve been tough on him all season because they KNEW how good he could be.
“I can’t say enough about DA and what he does for our team,” Paul said. “He does all the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.”
Chris Paul is healthy again and showing why he got the 5th most votes in the MVP balloting at age 36. He has made 12 of 13 shots in the 4th quarter this series, including 4-for-4 on threes, plus 8 assists and 6 rebounds with zero turnovers. His daggers on Friday in the fourth, out of that very pick-and-roll we’re talking about here, held off a desperate Nuggets team trying not to go down 3-0 in the series.
“Those jump shots that I hit towards the end of the game,” Paul said. “Those don’t happen without [Ayton] setting a screen, setting it with pace, the rebounds and all that. He’s so selfless, man, and we on him a lot. But he’s showing you why he is who he is.”
Who is Deandre Ayton? He’s the man averaging 15.6 points on 73% shooting and 11 rebounds per game, almost the same as his regular season numbers (15/10/63). Not eye-popping numbers by any means, and certainly not what a casual fan would think from a former No. 1 overall pick in probably the best draft (2018) in a decade.
But ask any Phoenix Suns player or coach and they will tell you that Ayton is the key to what they have accomplished on both ends of the court.
That’s because Ayton has turned himself into one of the best big man defenders in the league. He first frustrated the gigantic Lakers front line in the first round and now has mostly taken on league MVP Nikola Jokic single-handedly in the second round.
“Unbelievable. Unbelievable,” Paul said of Ayton’s defense on Jokic. “I mean, he (Jokic) is the MVP for a reason and we just tell DA all game long, ‘Just make it tough on him. Make it tough on him.’ And DA’s attention to detail, how he guards, how he boxes out, rebounds and running. Like I said, we ask so much of him and he can’t do any more than he’s doing.”
Booker chimed in as well.
“Deandre’s been playing his ass off the whole playoffs. From going from (Los Angeles Lakers starting forward) Anthony Davis first to Jokic, the MVP of the league, those aren’t easy matchups. We’re proud of him and his growth, we tell him, ‘Just make it hard. Just make it hard on him.”
Then Booker gives us a little insight into DA that we should appreciate. We’ve always wondered why DA gets up for big matchups but sometimes coasts against teams he should be dominating. It’s all about respect.
“I know he has a lot of respect for Jokic,” Booker said. “And I love when he respects somebody and he goes at them that much more. That’s the mindset that you need to have, and he’s been making it tough on him. Obviously, he still had 32 (points) and got it going a little bit but I felt it took 29 shots to get there and Deandre’s just taking on the challenge. I’m proud of it.”
Ayton has been his usual humble self, even after posting his 7th double-double in 9 games.
“Jokic, he had 20 rebounds,” Ayton said, wide-eyed with the stat sheet in his hand after the game. “That’s 10 offensive rebounds, 10 defensive (rebounds) — that’s insane. Yeah, that’s insane. And 10 assists, I did not know that. That’s amazing. Yep, he’s the MVP.”
Jokic played very hard, and had an MVP night. But he was also frustrated in not getting foul calls when he wanted them. Ayton played perfect defense — solid base, excellent balance and hands in the air straight up to avoid the referee whistle.
“I tried,” Ayton said. “I tried, honestly. I can just say I tried, that’s all I can say.”
Casual observers or new bandwagon fanatics might assume that Chris Paul and Booker have always been effusive over Ayton, but I’m here to tell you that they have not. Paul and Booker spent the entire season giving Ayton a ton of tough love (“no one’s been harder on DA than me,” Booker said recently) for a good reason: they knew what they needed from him when the playoffs came around.
And they’re getting exactly what they need from Ayton.
“He’s literally been our MVP in the postseason so far,” Paul said after the Game 2 win.