While guard play will be fun to watch in the NBA Finals, the trenches is where the 2021 NBA Championship will be determined. If the Phoenix Suns want to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks, the broad shoulders of Deandre Ayton will be needed to carry the franchise to their first title.
‘Twas not long ago that the fanbase was picking apart Deandre Ayton’s skillset and execution. He didn’t dunk enough. He had feet for hands. Why did he only score 14.4 points this season? Many clamored for him to perform like a prototypical number-one overall pick: ball dominant and 20+ points-per night with an ego big enough to match his performances.
That isn’t who the Suns needed Deandre to be, however. And thankfully he was just fine with that. He was willing to accept his role within the offense and focus his energy on the defense. Not every number one pick has the ability to put their ego aside and do what is best for the team. They want theirs and they want a chance to earn big money when their rookie deal is up.
Due to his sacrificial approach to his game, things appear to be working out just fine for Ayton.
Chris Paul just pointed to Deandre Ayton during his post-game interview with @Rachel__Nichols and announced that the Suns are "gonna get him a bag this summer."— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) June 27, 2021
Like Luka Doncic and Trae Young, Ayton is eligible for a lucrative contract extension in the offseason.
The growth and execution of Deandre Ayton on both ends of the floor has been paramount to the success of the Phoenix Suns this postseason. He has had to face an ever changing array of looks defensively. Champions adjust. Ayton has been adjusting over the past month and may end up being a champion because of it.
The playoffs began with the Los Angeles Lakers looking to overpower Ayton with their size. They threw the Paul Bunyan-esque log jam that is Andre Drummond at DA in hopes that he could bully him on the block. The only bullying Drummond would do was from the bench as he mimicked LeBron James isolating Jae Crowder in Game 3.
Ayton would not abide by what the Lakers attempted to do. He scored 15.8 points on 79.6% shooting and grabbed 10.7 rebounds. Ayton posted a 102.6 defensive rating. When the Lakers tried to switch LeBron James onto Ayton, he forced the 17-time All Star out of his game, holding him to 8-of-25 shooting (32%), blocking one shot, and forcing 3 turnovers.
Andre Drummond was sent home to play with Babe the blue ox.
In the Western Conference Semifinals, all focus was on his matchup with the NBA’s MVP Nikola Jokic. He had played well against him in the past, but these were the bright lights of the postseason. Even without Jamal Murray, the ability of the Joker would be a challenge for Phoenix if they wanted to advance.
Deandre Ayton limiting Nikola Jokic’s production in the second round could be the key for the Suns to advance again pic.twitter.com/p7k9WbKZ3a— Suns Nation (@SunsNationCP) June 5, 2021
Once again, Ayton responded. His offensive numbers weren’t overly impressive, just like they weren’t all season. They didn’t need to be. The most important numbers where. Ayton held Jokic to 24-of-59 shooting (40.7%), 2-of-12 from deep (16.7%), and he had only 14 assists. In a four game series, Ayton fouled Jokic a total of 4 times.
The Suns swept the Nuggets, 4-0.
Deandre had his best offensive series of the playoffs against the Los Angeles Clippers. The focus of the Western Conference Finals would be the guards and how they would navigate the length and flusterability of the Clippers backcourt defense. For all of the defense that Ayton had played to that point in the postseason, he finally was in a series in which his offense would have an opportunity to thrive.
He responded. Ayton scored 17.8 points and 13.7 rebounds — including 4.5 on the offensive end — and answered the call when his team needed him most. At the end of Game 2, with Phoenix down one point, Deandre Ayton cemented his place in Suns lore with his execution of the ‘Valley Oop’.
The Clippers tried everything Ty Lue could think in an attempt to negate his effectiveness. The switches. The five-out offense. The size of Ivica Zubac. None of it worked. When Ayton became a threat on offense, the Clippers had to account for him, which freed up the talents of Devin Booker and Chris Paul.
Paul smoked the Clippers for 41 points in Game 6, Ayton added 16 points and 17 boards, and now the Suns are headed to the NBA Finals.
And now it’s the Bucks.
The Milwaukee Bucks are a hybrid of everything the Suns have seen thus far this season. Brook Lopez has the size of Andre Drummond. Giannis is an MVP like Jokic, although their skillset is quite different. The backcourt of Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, with the assistance of P.J. Tucker, are designed to defensively attack the opposing guards and negate ball movement.
Make no mistake about it, the Bucks are in the NBA Finals due to their defensive prowess. They have been one of the best defensive teams in the playoffs thus far, holding the opposition to 103.7 points. That is second best to the Phoenix Suns (101.9). Their defensive rating of 105.0 is numero uno thus far in the playoffs.
Much akin to previous postseason series, the effectiveness of Ayton is paramount for the Suns’ success. If he can execute on the offensive end, it will free up Devin Booker and Chris Paul to crush in the mid-range.
We still do not know how available or productive Giannis will be in the NBA Finals. At this point, however, you must prepare for everything. That includes Antetokounmpo miraculously being healed like Daniel Larusso in the All Valley Tournament back in ‘84.
In two games this season, the Bucks chose to throw the size of Brook Lopez at Ayton on defense rather than the athleticism of Giannis. Lopez guarded Ayton for 49.6 partial possessions; Giannis only 9.1.
Here is how Deandre performed against each:
- Lopez: 10-of-12, 23 points, 2 assists. And a 3-pointer.
- Antetokounmpo: 2-of-2, 4 points
The mismatch on the frontline is present for the Suns on offense. The Bucks will surely try to flip that narrative in the Finals.
What Deandre can do on the defensive side of the ball will once again be of utter importance. His versatility has been the backbone of the Suns’ playoff run and his shot deterrence has been puzzling for the opposition to figure out.
Ayton has played both Lopez and Giannis well on defense in their two previous matchups this season:
- Lopez: 0-of-3, 0 points
- Antetokounmpo: 10-of-24, 34 points, 5 assists, 2 turnovers, 1 block
The Bucks have defeated some impressive names on their way to the NBA Finals. In the first round they held Bam Adebayo in check on both ends of the floor. During the regular season he had a net rating of +0.6. In the first round that flipped to -16.7.
In the Eastern Conference Semifinals it was Blake Griffin who spent 83% of his time playing center. Griffin had a net rating of +20.6 in the first round series against the Boston Celtics. Against the Bucks, that became -2.0.
Clint Capela was the opposing center in the Eastern Conference Finals and, once again, the Bucks were effective in taking him out of his game. The Hawks’ big man had a net rating of +17.6 in the first round against the New York Knicks. That number fell to +1.0 against the Bucks.
The Bucks will look to do the same in the NBA Finals. They will look to neutralize the interior on both ends. How? That is up to coach Mike Budenholzer to figure out.
Deandre Ayton will have to impose his will. If this playoff run has taught us anything, it is that Ayton can do just that. It might not be in a way that affects his personal box score. It might be with hard screens and precision rolls to the basket. It might be with shot deterrence. Ayton must continue to do the little things that allow his team to be successful.
That shouldn’t be an issue for Ayton, he is willing to do so. He is not your typical number one pick. It isn’t about “me” with him. It’s about “we”.