NBA Playoffs, Phoenix Suns

Deandre Ayton’s leap has the Suns one win away from the NBA Finals

Deandre Ayton’s playoff leap is the reason the Phoenix Suns are on the cusp of the NBA Finals.

Game 4 of the 2021 Western Conference Finals was ugly. It felt like a rock fight, only calling it a rock fight would be slanderous to rock fights.

After going a combined 10-for-40 from the field in Game 3, both Devin Booker (8-for-22) and Chris Paul (6-for-22) struggled once again Saturday night. The Phoenix Suns shot 36 percent from the floor and 20 percent from long range, while the LA Clippers shot just 32.5 percent overall and missed 12 potential game-tying or go-ahead baskets in the fourth quarter. The two sides shot a combined 7-for-38 in the final period as Phoenix eked out an 84-80 win on the road.

“That was a slugfest,” head coach Monty Williams euphemized. “That was what playoff basketball is all about.”

In a game where Booker fouled out, the Suns clung to a narrow, 71-70 lead for nearly four minutes of fourth-quarter game clock and both teams were searching for an answer, the road team got theirs from the best player on the floor in Game 4: Deandre Ayton.

Finishing his night with 19 points, a career-high 22 rebounds, 4 blocks, 3 assists and 1 steal, Ayton was an absolute beast for Phoenix yet again. The seven-footer made 8 of his 14 shots, corralled 9 offensive rebounds and was an absolute force on both ends of the floor.

“I thought Deandre’s presence, his effort, the rebounding, shot-blocking, his communication on defense, switching out on smaller guys and being able to guard them, he was the catalyst tonight on the defensive end,” Williams said. “I thought it was an unreal performance from him, and our guys rallied around him.”

Deandre Ayton has been the Suns’ playoff MVP

In Game 3, Clippers center Ivica Zubac won his individual matchup against Ayton, who had gone toe-to-toe with the likes of Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic in the first two rounds. Zubac notched 15 points and 16 rebounds as a game-best plus-28 in LA’s win on Thursday, while Ayton finished with 18 points and 9 rebounds as a game-worst minus-25.

It was a stunning result, and one Phoenix’s big fella sought to rectify.

“I’m gonna be honest, I got outplayed last game,” Ayton admitted. “Zubac did a great job of controlling the glass and being a presence down low on both ends of the floor. It was up to me to get in front of that or compete with that or challenge that, and I just tried my best. That’s about it, I really tried my best to just be relentless on the glass and really tried to control both ends of the floor with my presence, talking and my effort.”

Bouncing back from adversity and surpassing expectations have become staples of Ayton’s first postseason run. Heading into the playoffs, few knew what to expect of the former No. 1 overall pick. It wasn’t long ago that people were wondering why DA wouldn’t dunk more, why his focus waned from game to game and whether he was even the right big man for this Suns team to contend.

“Honestly, the world having me as a question mark in the playoffs,” Ayton said of his motivation. “That got to me a little bit, and I wanted to change that.”

One month of playoff basketball later, Ayton has left absolutely no doubts about his two-way importance to Phoenix … and just how high their ceiling can be when he plays like this.

“To see his growth, I get goosebumps,” Chris Paul said. “Seriously man, we done had some heated conversations this season, especially earlier in the season, but I genuinely love him. The person that he is and to see everything that’s coming to him, the national audience getting to see who he is and why he was the No. 1 pick, I couldn’t be happier for him.”

With Paul’s arrival, in addition to landing veterans like Jae Crowder and finally giving Devin Booker a supporting cast built to contend, Ayton was the one piece Phoenix needed to rise to the occasion in order to make this kind of leap to legitimate contender status. And while it was a bumpy adjustment process early in the season — playing alongside a demanding competitor like Chris Paul isn’t always a picnic — DA is playing his best basketball at the perfect time.

For his part, Ayton couldn’t be more grateful for the influence the Point God has had on his game, his mentality and his work ethic.

“I love CP, man,” he said. “That’s really the only teammate that really pushed me. Like, big bro type pushed, knowing what I got that I never thought that I had. He was the best thing that happened to my career.

“It’s actually crazy, I never knew a guy that could care so much about basketball and compete at everything, and it’s contagious and that’s been building in me as well. Just having him as a teammate and the experiences that he’s been through and teaching me the little things, it’s helped me, man, and it’s working.”

Paul’s influence and veteran leadership can be felt throughout this young roster, but Ayton deserves the majority of the credit for being receptive to constructive criticism all year long. Even as recently as the regular season, it wasn’t uncommon to see Paul, Booker or Crowder react in frustration when Ayton was out of position on a screen or a roll or on defense. He’s had people in his ear all season long, and it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that’d he’d respond so emphatically.

And yet, instead of recoiling or taking it personally, Ayton has used it as fuel, and even Booker — who admitted to being DA’s harshest critic — is singing his praises for that growth and preparation.

“He’s brought it to a whole ‘nother level this playoffs, from angles of screening to understanding the game — not understanding just who his matchup is, but who we’re guarding and what they like to do,” Book said. “You see him putting the time in off the floor. I don’t know how much basketball he watched prior, but he comes up to me about every game now, and conversations that we didn’t have in the past, so I know he’s tuned in, I know he’s focused.”

The results show on the stat sheet, where Ayton is now averaging a ridiculous 16.6 points and 11.4 rebounds per game on 70.9 percent shooting through his first 14 playoff games.

They also show up in the eye test, where he’s gone from locking down the league MVP in the last round to hanging with the Clippers’ plethora of guards and wings in a small-ball series. His ability to clog up the middle on pick-and-roll actions, switch out onto the perimeter and close out stops with defensive rebounds has been monumental.

On the other end, Ayton is shooting an incredible 78.6 percent near the rim in this series, punishing the Clippers around the basket for easy points in the paint and attacking the offensive glass with such relentlessness that Williams raved he’s “one of the best I’ve ever seen” when it comes to keeping balls alive without going over defenders’ backs.

While Booker and Paul are still the Suns’ best players when they reach peak levels, Ayton has, at the very least, been the team’s most consistent playoff performer so far … and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say this 22-year-old has been their postseason MVP either.

“I learned I can keep going, there’s another level,” Ayton said of his growth. “I think that I reached the next level that I need to be at at this level when it comes to competing.”

The job is not done, of course. The Suns narrowly won Game 4 on Ayton’s back, just as they won Game 2 at the buzzer thanks to his miraculous Valley-Oop. The Clippers have battled back from series deficits before, so if Booker continues to struggle like he has since Game 1 (going 18-for-59 in the last three contests), and if Paul still has rust to shake off (11-for-41 since returning), Phoenix will be hard-pressed to close out this series in Game 5 … even in front of their roaring home crowd.

But with Ayton submitting stellar two-way performances, the Suns’ margin for error slightly increases, especially against a Clippers squad that will likely be playing without Kawhi Leonard yet again. It’s striking, but DA playing like this has Phoenix in position to reach its first NBA Finals since 1993 … and possibly win its first-ever championship.

Hearing Devin Booker speak glowingly about his fellow young cornerstone of the future, it appears that ceiling-raising impact hasn’t been lost on anyone.

“That’s my little big brother,” he said. “We have a relationship that’s bigger than basketball. It’s taken time to develop it, and I’m so proud of him and the strides that he’s taken.”

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