Game 3 between the Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Pelicans left a lot of questions unanswered about the fate of this series.
One thing that was made clear in the Suns’ 114-111 victory: Deandre Ayton is ready to lead.
The youngest member of the Suns’ starting lineup made his presence felt offensively and defensively with 28 points, 17 rebounds, and 3 steals while only committing 2 fouls in just under 35 minutes played. Most of his production came in the first half, scoring 21 points on 10-14 from the field and 1-1 from downtown, his second three of the series.
When looking at the fourth quarter box score and seeing Ayton’s 0 points in the quarter, and Chris Paul’s 19 points, it would be easy to conclude that the final quarter was ‘too big’ for Ayton, that he shied away from the moment. Far too often, fans and the media will criticize players for their fourth performance, that nothing matters outside of the numbers you put up when the game is on the line.
In Ayton’s case, this narrative could not be further from the truth. After the game, Paul set the record straight and explained how Ayton’s performance in the fourth was anything but ‘shy’.
“[Ayton] kept telling me he was gonna get me loose,” Paul said. “And he told me to stop passing and to shoot the ball.”
As he spoke, Paul could not help but chuckle in hindsight. Ayton confirmed this interaction afterward as well. He too found the humor that Paul, and everyone in the room for that matter, felt about the idea of 23-year-old Deandre Ayton telling 36-year-old Chris Paul what and what not to do on a basketball court.
“Oh yea!” Ayton said emphatically. “[Paul] did his job in the first [two] quarters to really get everybody going, and the court started opening up.”
“I’m telling [Chris in the fourth quarter], ‘they’re back to normal coverage, [I] need you to shoot the ball. [I’ll] get a clean hit, I need you to just come off [my screen] and do your thing’. And he did it!”
For Ayton to show this level of understanding and maturity speaks to how far he has come in such a short time. Less than four years ago, he was the 1st pick of the 2018 NBA Draft, heading to a seemingly despondent Phoenix Suns team.
And now here he is, having a career night in a crucial playoff game, and telling the ‘Point God’ to “shoot the ball”.
So chuckle all you want. But while Devin Booker remains out, Deandre Ayton is ready to step up and lead the Suns.
“Next man up, that’s our motto,” Ayton said after the game.
“It [doesn’t] matter who is on the floor. We gotta get the job done.”