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Deandre Ayton continues to make history in masterful NBA Finals debut

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Ayton’s Phoenix Suns teammates are continuing to sing praises for his efforts in the 2021 Playoffs

NBA: Finals-Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

PHOENIX — During his postgame press conference, Phoenix Suns starting point guard Chris Paul sung praises for teammate and starting center Deandre Ayton. At the same time, he threw a jab to starting shooting guard Devin Booker.

“The success and the recognition that he (Ayton) is getting right now is well-deserved, and I couldn’t be happier for another guy on our team,” Paul said. Then he turned to look at his waiting teammate. “Not even you, Book.”

Paul previously labeled Ayton as the Suns’ MVP of the postseason, and their 118-105 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the NBA Finals at Phoenix Suns Arena on Tuesday night was another example why.

Ayton finished with a 22-point effort on 8-of-10 shooting with 19 rebounds, a performance only overshadowed by a masterful 32-point night from Paul that included a 16-point third quarter.

Tuesday’s game marked the fourth time Ayton has shot at least 80 percent from the field this postseason — the most in a single playoff run in the shot-clock era — and eighth instance above 70 percent. It was also his sixth double-double in these playoffs with at least 15 rebounds, which is tied for the fourth-most in NBA history behind Wilt Chamberlain (nine), Bill Walton (nine) and Bill Russell (eight).

Ayton is also one of two players (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971) to have at least 20 points and 15 rebounds on 75 percent shooting in his NBA Finals debut.

“He’s just locked into the role,” Williams said. “And sometimes when you tell a player he has a role, they tend to think you’re limiting their ability. I don’t think DA thinks that. I think he understands his role and how he can affect winning on both sides of the ball.”

After the game, Ayton spoke about his individual performance and how conversations with Paul and Booker have enabled them to play together successfully at this point of the season.

If he felt Suns starting point guard Chris Paul stole the last rebound of the game from him, negating a potential 20-rebound effort:

“Yeah. (Suns starting shooting guard) [Devin Booker] got on him. I didn’t really care. I was just happy how we all performed, to be honest.”

On takeaways from conversations with Paul this season that are helping his game now:

“Really just approaching the game the right way. Always being alert, little things that matter in long stretches of the game, knowing my matchup tendencies and just being a presence on both ends of the floor. Just putting pressure on the rim and also protecting the rim.”

On how much fun he is having this postseason:

“I’m just happy because I woke up saying this is just one game closer. I get goose bumps, sometimes I overwhelm myself on the way to the game. I’m having a lot of fun because my guys in there, they keep me level and they keep me intent with it.”

On when he felt like he settled into the game:

“Really when CP and Book started getting to their spots out of our pick-and-rolls early. Me setting good screens and just adapting to how the Bucks was throwing defense at us, whether they were switching or going over or under, just really trying to get a good hit on them and they got the rest.”

On how much pride he takes in rebounding the ball:

“I mean, them dudes is big dudes, man. That’s how they really get their offense going especially. Just try to clean up some of that stuff so we can get on a run and give ourselves some momentum as well, and I tried my best. Like (Suns starting forward) Jae Crowder and (backup forward) [Torrey] Craig, coming in there just getting some tips or boxing out guys like (Bucks starting forward) P.J. Tucker, to not really strapping up my hand when I get the board.”

On why he, Paul and Booker complement each other well:

“It’s just the respect level. Like you say, we all got on each other, had candid conversations where we had to adjust. But candid conversations leads to wins, and it started to be great communication and constructive criticism and we just all take it into a positive and play together. Bring it to the other guys, and they see how we are playing as unit and it’s contagious. That’s about it.”

On how he negates his anxiety before games:

“Me, I really just take three deep breaths. Close my eyes and after I do that, the whole arena is really empty, to be honest. I just see me teammates and my coaches. There’s a task at hand after that.”