It’s no easy task in the postseason to consistently perform well against the opposition. That is why an NBA championship is so hard to achieve. To be elite, to be the best through four consecutive rounds in high leverage, intense, and physical games is tough. Nothing good in life is easy, right?
For the Phoenix Suns, they face a tough road ahead in the Western Conference Semifinals. The Denver Nuggets are an elite offense that possess a chemistry that Phoenix is trying to find. Factor in the fact that they are playing a two-time defending Most Valuable Player in Nikola Jokić, and it will take consistent quality effort and energy on both ends of the floor to overcome them.
Have no fear, however, as the Suns have a max-contract center to counter with in Deandre Ayton.
Two seasons ago when these two teams met in the Second Round, the Suns and Ayton swept Jokić out of the playoffs. Ayton’s numbers? 14.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and a 61 FG%. It’s not always in the numbers for DA against the Joker, it’s in the effort.
But these are two different teams than two years ago. Chris Paul is older. Kevin Durant is now on the team. The wing depth that the Suns once possessed has been depleted in an effort to bring Durant to the team. On the other side of the ball, Jamal Murray is healthy. Aaron Gordon is now on the roster. Michael Porter, Jr. is two years older and much more comfortable on both sides of the ball.
If the Suns want to stand a chance against a high-functioning offense, they are going to have to do so with effort. Effort on their screens. Effort on their box outs. Effort on the defensive end. Effort on their defensive rotations. Effort on the glass.
There’s a viral clip of the lack of effort put forth by Deandre Ayton in Game 1. On the play, he stands and simply watches Nikola Jokić, grabbing multiple offensive rebounds.
Roll the clip.
Ayton Stans: Don't knock DA's hustle. Don't knock his effort. You don't know how to watch basketball.— Suns JAM Session Podcast (@SunsJAM) April 30, 2023
Ayton, the subject of much debate for his entire stint in the NBA, can appear to be lackadaisical at times. It’s been noted throughout the regular season, and DA defenders remind us not to worry. “Just wait until the postseason”. “Just wait until it truly matters”. “His motor will increase as will his intensity and effort”.
And then there Ayton himself, stating, “Motor? Come on, bro. I play both ends of the floor, my name is, ‘DominAyton.’ I anchor the Phoenix Suns on both ends of the floor. Motor? Really? We’re going to talk about motor, man? Nope! I run on Tesla battery.”
As Judge Elihu Smails says, “well, we’re waiting”.
Ayton saw the ESPN highlight above.
Ayton commented on ESPN’s video of him watching KD and Jokic battling for w rebound. pic.twitter.com/TfvM0N8NLe— Mike Vigil (@protectedpick) April 30, 2023
For the most part, Deandre Ayton had a quality first game against the Nuggets. The above video is a moment in time during what was otherwise a decent performance. His stat line didn’t necessarily fortify that (nor does it need to); he had 14 points and 7 rebounds in 30 minutes played, along with 4 fouls.
An interesting adjustment, Monty Williams rotated Ayton in when Nikola Jokić went out with 1:33 left in the first quarter. DA worked his way into position on numerous occasions on the low block and the Suns were actively trying to get him the ball.
Jokić returned with 6:41 left in the second, and with 4:50 remaining, Monty subbed DA out for Bismack Biyombo. Perhaps it’s the size and physicality that Biyombo brings that money wanted to exploit. Perhaps he wanted Ayton to be fresh in the second half in an attempt to shut down the two-time MVP.
But when they were on the court together, Ayton struggled against Jokić. In 7:30 of gametime playing head-to-head, the Joker scored 6 points on 3-of-6 shooting. More importantly, the Nuggets scored 37 points on 35.6 partial possessions.
Of course, everybody struggles against Jokić. There’s a reason why he’s a two-time MVP.
I feel like a broken record, stating this time and time again, but the Suns need more effort and more energy from Deandre moving forward. He needs to walk-the-talk.
Ayton has to stay locked in if the Suns are to be successful. He has to increase his motor on the boards, not rely on his Tesla battery. He has to try. He can’t take possessions off and allow multiple offensive rebounds to occur and result in easy points for the Nuggets. Those are momentum builders for the Nuggets and momentum killers for the Suns.
How many times have we seen his teammates yell at him and frustration? How many times has he been out of position? How many times do his own teammates not pass the ball because they’re afraid that he will not be able to execute?
Whether Ayton likes it or not, his motor is a key factor in this series. Yes, it’s one game. Yes, it’s a long series. “We’re going to be a completely different team Game 2. I can tell you that,” Ayton stated after the Game 1 loss.
He needs to live up to those words. He needs to impose his will rather than allow Jokić to stand under the basket and corral 8 offensive rebounds. The Suns’ offense can keep up with the Nuggets, but they can’t survive the series if the interior becomes a volleyball clinic for Denver.
Start your combustion engines, DA. Tesla batteries run out after 405 miles.