Deandre Ayton attempted 12 shots and two free throws in the Phoenix Suns’ 101-111 Game 4 loss to the Dallas Mavericks. That doesn’t sound too bad. He had 14 points, 11 rebounds. Not so far off his regular season averages of 17/10.
The kicker is...the Mavericks have nobody to guard Ayton. Nobody. Their fans over on Mavs Moneyball readily admit this. Both Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber are basically backup power forwards whom the Mavericks have pressed into service as centers, and theyre both smaller and far less athletically gifted than the fourth-year Suns big man.
And despite this, the Suns are forfeiting the massive advantage that this skilled scorer could offer them by making him almost a non-factor on the offensive end. Ayton attempted 20 shots in Game 1, scoring 25 points to lead the Suns to a Game 1 win. Since then, he has averaged just 10 shots per game, assuming as large an offensive role as Jae Crowder.
It is extremely frustrating to watch the Suns essentially refuse to take advantage of what everyone on planet Earth understands to be the biggest Dallas weakness. We could debate, as we have in the past, whether the problem is Ayton or the Suns’ guards. We’ve been through this discussion many times, the anecdotal evidence that Ayton only plays well on offense when engaged early and often, and the need for the Suns guards to feed him in the first quarter to make sure that happens.
Whether you lay the blame on Ayton, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Monty Williams, or some combination of all of them, this is the point in time Ayton’s “haters” (a word I dislike, personally) have warned about for the better part of three years.
This was the concern when Ayton would seem to disappear for games, featuring on offense only as an opportunistic lob catcher or put back man. Or when he’d have 8 points on 4/4 shooting in the first quarter, and then only take four more shots all night.
It was easy to stop worrying about it for most of the past two seasons because it feels silly to nitpick who is doing the scoring when your team is winning at a level nearly unheard of in franchise history. Whining about how Ayton’s stat line looks more like Jusuf Nurkic’s than Joel Embiid’s seems stupid when your team has won 10 of its last 11 games.
But the time has arrived when the Suns really need Ayton to not accept being a third or fourth option on the offensive end. For the Suns to be praying Cam Payne finds his scoring touch while Ayton attempts THREE field goals in the second half is absurd on a level I struggle to put into words.
His 16 points per game in the series is BARELY acceptable. His 13 points per game since game 1 is just not. That’s not what an elite big man in his physical prime does in a crucial situation.
So I hope I’m not alone in wanting to see a very different use of Ayton’s talent next time out. If he’s not our first or second-leading shot taker, something is seriously wrong with how the Suns are thinking about their strategy against the Mavericks.