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The Million Dollar Matchup: Nikola Jokic vs. Deandre Ayton

Deandre Ayton has a chance to prove his worth on the biggest stage... again. Can he slow down the Serbian sensation?

2021 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

There are plenty of basketball enthusiasts that are looking forward to this Phoenix Suns-Denver Nuggets series, and for good reason.

Two of the most dynamic offenses in the NBA going head-to-head in a rematch of the 2021 Western Conference Semifinals. This series will provide some thrilling moments in what should be your typical intense and chippy playoff environment.

You will have Devin Booker and Jamal Murray trading buckets. Kevin Durant vs. Aaron Gordon. How will Chris Paul and Michael Porter Jr. survive on defense in this series? Bruce Brown & Kentavious Caldwell-Pope vs. Josh Okogie and Torrey Craig as the pivotal role players.

The greatest storyline of them all? The matchup between none other than Nikola Jokic and Deandre Ayton. This is the type of series the Suns paid Deandre Ayton for. This is where Deandre can win fans back over that have jumped ship. It’s his time to shine and make a difference in a crucial series in hopes of advancing to their 2nd Western Conference Finals appearance in 3 seasons.

Denver Nuggets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

As the old adage goes “defense wins championships”. Which team are you more confident in stopping the other in this series? For me, it’s Phoenix due to the tools they have at their disposal to slow Denver down.

There is a big “IF” involved with the Suns’ defense, and it hinges primarily on how engaged a certain someone is. When Ayton is locked in and fully engaged, he is one of the most impactful bigs in the association.


The first question on my mind is: which Deandre Ayton will show up?

We all know which version of Nikola Jokic we will get, as he is one of the most steady, relentless stars in the NBA that can impact the game in a variety of ways. It feels like death by a million cuts when you face Jokic, as he doesn’t get everything at once. Over the course of the game, he “collects” his from a variety of areas of the court within the flow of the offense all while controlling the glass and getting others involved. The balance he provides across the board offensively is truly next level.

Phoenix Suns v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Deandre Ayton did about as great of a job against Nikola Jokic in the Western Conference Semifinals as one could ask. Jokic was held to just 27-of-64 (42.2%) shooting with Ayton on him in the 2021 sweep. Considering how efficient the Joker typically is, there is a firm enough sample size there to determine that Ayton made life difficult for Jokic throughout the series.

The Joker still averaged an absurd 25.0 points, 13.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.3 blocks per game, but given the lack of other offensive options in Denver at the time, you will take that output any day. It’s a major reason the Suns were able to sweep Denver in the fashion they did.

Those numbers don’t do it for you? Hear it from the man himself. Nikola Jokic on Deandre Ayton: “He guards me really well. He’s given me trouble in the past.”

The amount of respect between the two is what makes sports great, as after the series Jokic sent Ayton an autographed jersey with a message saying “To my brother DA … U are beast !!! Keep up the good work !!!”

Ayton began this wholesome exchange after singing his (Jokic’s) praises by saying: “That’s The MVP of Our League. He Can Do Anything.”

Arizona Sports’ Kellan Olson had a tremendous breakdown of the matchup with clips to back up the data and statistics he provided. Highly recommend reading that piece here: Can Deandre Ayton stifle Nikola Jokic again?

Let’s hope we get a sequel to this, with the Suns coming out on top again.


The key to this whole thing really comes down to one thing: foul trouble.

If Deandre can stay on the court and match Jokic’s minutes (likely 40+ per game) then I feel good about this series. If he’s picking up weak fouls or has to sit for extended periods of time, that’s when I believe the Suns could be in trouble.

Fasten your seatbelts, Suns fans. Things are about to get wild.

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